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In 1983, Compaq introduced its first product, a portable computer weighing 28 pounds; 128-640K RAM, two 5.25" floppy drives, 9" monochrome CRT for $3590. It was extremely successful in the market, and the company took off like a rocket; the later Plus model added an internal hard drive.

In 1984, IBM released the Portable Personal Computer 5155 model 68, a similar design weighing 30 pounds; 256-512K or 640K RAM, one or two 5.25" floppy drives, 9" monochrome CRT. Wikipedia says it was cheaper, but doesn't give a number. http://oldcomputers.net/ibm5155.html on the contrary says $4225. By all accounts it did not sell well, was considered something of a flop and discontinued relatively early.

I personally have never seen the attraction of a 'portable' that weighs more than many desktop machines, but my feelings on the matter are immaterial; the fact is that the market at the time was hungry for such machines, and the Compaq sold very well.

Which makes it surprising that the IBM portable PC flopped; it looks to me like essentially the same product, only with the IBM nameplate; I would expect this to be an attractive proposition for the business computing market in the eighties.

So why is it that the Compaq portable sold well but the IBM didn't?

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    Call it "luggable" then. The possibility of taking your work with you on the road was as attractive then as it is now. That was just what was available then. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen May 23 at 13:27
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    Price is just one factor in whether something will sell. As I recall, the IBM model was a late entry into the luggable niche so unlikely to have taken the world by storm unless it was a major upgrade on the rest (Compaq, Osbourne, Kaypro, ...). – Jon Custer May 23 at 13:38
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    Or Schleppable. – Raffzahn May 23 at 13:40
  • Trans portable is what I used at the time to describe machines like this. – Fabby May 24 at 13:13
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    "I personally have never seen the attraction of a 'portable' that weighs more than many desktop machines" You never dragged a full tower and 15" monitor, plus the keyboard and other cables in to a demo. It's not just the weight, it's the form factor, and the "single cord" connect-ability of it all. Most computers were boxes with video cords, keyboard cords, power cords, etc. dangling about. It's just plain awkward. This thing had a single power cord in a nice, tight package. I was so happy when we got our flat panel plasma display lunch box machine for demos back in the day. – Will Hartung May 25 at 4:18
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I personally have never seen the attraction of a 'portable' that weighs more than many desktop machines, but my feelings on the matter are immaterial; the fact is that the market at the time was hungry for such machines, and the Compaq sold very well.

They were the solution for people without a fixed office, or moving locations. Not the constant moving ones staying just an hour at Starbucks, but anyone who stays for a few days, weeks or month in a location, does his work and moves on to the next site. Think construction, engineering but also lawyers and many other professions who nowadays use laptops.

The advantage is less about being fully portable within seconds, but move your office within like 15 minutes into your car and keep going - including a full PC setup beside all files and whatsoever tools.

Which makes it surprising that the IBM portable PC flopped; it looks to me like essentially the same product, only with the IBM nameplate; I would expect this to be an attractive proposition for the business computing market in the eighties.

It's a bit hard to say it 'flopped' as the sales were quite above expectations and comparable with Compaq.

So why is it that the Compaq portable sold well but the IBM didn't?

Foremost timing. The Compaq could work the market for most parts of a whole year until the IBM was ready. At the time IBM entered that segment (with the bulkier and heavier 5155) Compaq already prepared the Portable Plus with hard disk and full 640 KiB of memory.

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The main reason for Compaq's longer-term success in the PC market, in comparison to IBM, is what is commonly referred to as the "First-mover advantage".

In the beginning of the PC market, IBM actually held a monopoly position. As we know, in a couple of years, Compaq and others would challenge this by creating legal PC BIOS clones and bringing compatible machines to the market. This created a new marketplace in which technological leadership was a key marketing advantage for any company that could assert that position.

Compaq was the first notable PC clone maker to assert and maintain first-mover status through technological leadership, using the portable PC form-factor as the major perceived innovation. This gave them significant leverage in marketing their products against IBM's. The same thing that happened with Compaq's success against IBM in portable computers was repeated with the introduction of the Compaq Deskpro 386 in 1986. This repeat success demonstrates perfectly how first-mover status conveys a Halo effect, so long as the association of the brand with technological leadership is maintained.

It's easy in this forum to make discussion about the supposed objective, technical, qualities of one computer over another. In this case, such appeals to rational argument obscure the real history. Simply ask yourself whose name would likely be spotted on a T-shirt or bumper sticker at a users' group meetup circa 1985 - IBM, or Compaq? Brand marketing sells products better than technical specs, in all markets, and at all times.

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    By the time the Portable PC was introduced, most of the people who would have been in the market for such a machine already owned a Compaq, and by the time the first wave of Compaqs wore out such people would be in the market for better machines. – supercat May 23 at 16:09
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    @supercat The way buyers act, the likely outcome was by the time the first wave of Compaq's wore out, such people would be in the market for a better Compaq. – Brian H May 23 at 18:41
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    People would have a bias toward a better Compaq, but if something else came out that was sufficiently superior, they might buy that instead. The key point is that someone with a Compaq that could do what they needed wouldn't be in the market for any computer. – supercat May 23 at 19:07
  • @supercat Ok, you seem to be answering OP question with "IBM missed the window for selling portable PCs" because Compaq got there first. This is similar to my answer, but I am also saying why that matters so much. – Brian H May 23 at 20:46
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One definite advantage of the Compaq Portable over the IBM 5155 is that it had a video card and display that could render text at MDA resolution, with 14 pixel rows per character, and still support CGA graphics modes. The 5155 used a stock CGA with 8 pixel rows per character in all modes. This meant that for someone working in text mode with the built-in screen, the Compaq's display was much more readable.

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    This should not be underestimated. CGA quality text was terrible and MDA was a huge step forward. – mschaef May 24 at 13:53
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    The 5155 uses an internal connector for its monitor; I don't know if that existed on an original stock CGA. If not, I find it curious that IBM didn't arrange to have color text show up grayscale on the signal feeding that connector, rather than superimposing useless chroma stripes that would often render it illegible. – supercat May 24 at 18:21
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    @supercat The internal connector on a CGA carries the same signals as the composite video port, and it's present on all IBM CGAs. According to the IBM technical reference it was originally intended for connecting a TV modulator. – john_e May 24 at 22:32
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Which makes it surprising that the IBM portable PC flopped; it looks to me like essentially the same product, only with the IBM nameplate; I would expect this to be an attractive proposition for the business computing market in the eighties.

Rod Canion (Founding CEO of Compaq) did an interview with Guy Raz a couple years ago, and this is one of the key moments they describe in Compaq's history. At the time, even the Compaq leadership team was viewing IBM's portable as an existential threat to their existence, and there were those within Compaq that were arguing for a large reduction in scale, as orders were drying up in advance of IBM's ship date.

What they did instead is speculatively build a bunch of machines, store them around the city in trailers, and hope that IBM would have execution issues. The bet paid off when IBM start shipping their portability in only limited quantities, and the dealership network collectively decided they'd rather deal with Compaq than IBM (with its institutional arrogance.)

The whole podcast is definitely worth a listen.

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/national-public-radio/how-i-built-this/e/compaq-computers-rod-canion-50232383

I personally have never seen the attraction of a 'portable' that weighs more than many desktop machines, but my feelings on the matter are immaterial; the fact is that the market at the time was hungry for such machines, and the Compaq sold very well.

When a 30 pound computer without a battery is your only option for portable computing, it looks a lot better then than it might now. Even the original (putatively desktop) Macintosh had a travel bag to allow it to be used portably. (Which I don't think would've been any worse than a Compaq portable.)

To put it in perspective with a family anecdote, my father worked for the Houston electric utility at the time. Thanks to the Houston connection between the two companies, HL&P had settled on Compaq machines for their desktop users. There were more than a few times that he'd bring a Portable home in order to get work done, and that was essentially the only option. A few years later, they bought a Portable as a family computer, and while it was largely stationary, it did occasionally get used portably. (Aside from some foam degradation in the keyboard, that machine still runs.)

  • Fascinating background. What is "foam degradation in the keyboard". – Brian H May 24 at 16:01
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    @BrianH The keyboard uses a capacitive mechanism that involves disks suspended with foam that has a tendency to degrade and need to be replaced. Haven't made the fix myself, but my machine has the problem. vcfed.org/forum/… – mschaef May 24 at 20:27

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