I realize the primary lure of owning a portable computer is that -- well -- is that it's portable. You can carry it around, and work on it wherever and whenever. Apple's done a lot to make portable computing cool; I still remember looking at a PowerBook fold-out ad in college where some impossibly fit woman was sitting astride a mountain peak with her PowerBook 160 on her lap. Geeks like me were freed from our computer pens, ready to stride the world with a portable computer and actually see the sun for ourselves.
Anyone who had a PowerBook 160 -- or any other portable made before 1999 -- knows what a romantic dream powerful, portable computing was. Sure, I could have lugged my PowerBook up a mountain. And then I could have tapped on it for 20 minutes before the battery ran out, thus guaranteeing that if a PowerBook granted any sort of freedom, it was the freedom to lug several pounds of dead machinery up and down a mountain.
Then Apple came out with the G3 series, and that fantasy of working in fabulous natural locations returned. The battery life is fantastic -- three to four hours! If you have two batteries tucked into your PowerBook G3, you can work an entire day untethered by power cords.
In November 1999, I bought a bronze-edition PowerBook G3 and the mobile computing lifestyle began. I take my computer with me everywhere; it's been through most major United airline hubs in the U.S; it's celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and the Super Bowl with me; I worked on a personal project during a San Francisco Giants-Colorado Rockies game. I also use it to catch up on e-mail as I ride the ferry to and from work.
But I really wish one of those early PowerBook posters would have warned me -- the fantasy comes with crumbs.
The downside to mobile computing is your computer is now unprotected from the world at large. Back in my desktop-computer days, I was the only threat to my CPU. Now, I'm wary of the whole, messy world. I've executed complex dives in the name of shielding my computer from airline coffee spills and fellow commuters' crumbs. At the baseball game, I frequently interrupted my work to hunch protectively over the screen as an overly enthusiastic fan bounded across our bleacher to replace her beer in the second, third, fifth, seventh, and eighth innings.
My computer's not even safe at home. If I pull it out while watching television, the cat comes over to establish that she, not the computer, is the dominant lap inhabitant. At least once a week, I have to blow out the cat hair that's accumulated.
None of these posters ever showed the footloose and fancy-free PowerBook user shaking sand out of her keyboard or eyeing the rollerblading pedestrian with an open liter of Mountain Dew with unease. Nope -- the computers in their world are always shiny; the case doesn't get smudged by nail polish (don't ask), and the screen never has feline noseprints smudged across it. The day I found myself digging crumbs out of the keyboard was the day I realized my computer had lost the laptop equivalent of that new car smell.
So now fellow humans make me anxious, and I wonder if my computer's portable in name only. I also wonder if it still looks cool now that the new car smell is gone, or if my computer is rapidly turning into another clunky, dingy relic and my constant carrying of it is only speeding the process along.
Apple needs to retool their mobile computing campaign. Because, really, who expects their PowerBook to stay pristine when they're hiking up Mt. Shasta? Or what's the point of having a portable computer if you're only going to stay in a sterile white room and admire its curves? Come on, Apple. Start the "battered-is-beautiful" campaign. Or at least let me know my beloved G3 can survive a few coffee spills and cat hairs.