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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 13:46 GMT
A requiem for a doomed laptop
Some of the gadgets we use find a place in our hearts and our homes, says regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Laptop user, BBC
Laptops have become digital companions for many people
My laptop is dying. After over two years in which it has been my constant companion, I think it is reaching the end of its useful life.

The case is bruised and battered, worn and scratched with a few unusual indentations. The "5" key often sticks. The CD drive has died with a disk still in there, and is invisible to the operating system. And the battery life has dropped from three hours to around 90 minutes despite all my efforts to revive it.

It is clearly on its way out.

Apart from the obvious financial implications - I always buy my own kit - this is an emotional wrench, because I adore this computer.

It's a 12in Apple PowerBook G4, flat, silvered and perfectly proportioned. It has given me the freedom to live my life as I choose, working from cafes or trains or my girlfriend's house, filing copy and podcasts from Tunis and Delhi and even, on one memorable occasion, a vaporetto on the Grand Canal in Venice.

It has been lugged around the world, dropped on more than one occasion, had a power supply short out and start smoking - while I was watching, fortunately - and generally suffered the slings and arrows of the outrageous freelance life.

Without my laptop and the wireless networks that permeate many cities these days I would have spent extended periods of time in cyber cafés, or even ended up stuck in an office, and a job, and a very different way of life.

I owe my portfolio career, my freedom to work wherever I happen to find myself, and my serious caffeine habit to it, and the laptops that preceded it.

The PowerBook isn't the first laptop that I've become attached to in the years since 1991 when I lugged a Compaq SLT with a single floppy drive and orange screen onto the London to Cambridge train.

Bill Thompson
The laptop, as Goldilocks would have pointed out if she'd been searching online recipes instead of stealing porridge, is "just right".
Bill Thompson
The most important before the PowerBook was my Sony Vaio.

Steel blue, ultra-slim, it remains the embodiment of all that a laptop could or should be. Stylish, functional, and still reliable after five years it could not keep up with my increasing need to edit audio and video on the move, something at which my Mac has excelled.

However, it does fine as my son's spare computer, the one he uses for writing scripts and stories.

I could try to do without a new laptop of course, and move to a handheld computer or even a smartphone, using available desktop machines where necessary, but somehow I don't think so.

Hardware, hard choices

Some devices, some ways of doing, are more than just compromises waiting for a better solution. The printed and bound book, for example, survives into the information age because it is a remarkably efficient and effective way of storing and presenting text and image.

Similarly the combination of keyboard, trackpad and screen is ideal for writing at length and for editing the result, and it is a perfect way to explore the many worlds of the internet while sitting in the third space of a café.

A desktop computer requires an act of obeisance as you sit at your appointed place, while a handheld computer or phone is too small to be anything other than a second choice.

The laptop, as Goldilocks would have pointed out if she'd been searching online recipes instead of stealing porridge, is "just right".

There are many ways to make a computer portable. But the clamshell design, and the idea that you have a device that opens, like a book, or a purse or a pair of welcoming hands, is one of those ideas that is only obvious because someone else has already had it.

MacBook in Apple store, AP
Bill is considering buying one of these
In fact it's over a quarter of a century since William Moggridge designed the earliest laptop, the Grid Compass, packing all the elements of a computer into a folding case.

Expensive even for the time, with a primitive electroluminescent display and a bubble memory, the Compass was used by the US military and by NASA on early Space Shuttle missions. Moggridge got it so right 25 years ago that we've merely been refining the idea since then.

So if it's going to be a laptop, what should it be?

I'm an operating system agnostic, having used so many throughout the years that I can swap between them with ease. I've got a Mac laptop and a desktop running Windows XP and often work on them both at the same time, swapping keyboards and desktop metaphors without a problem. I don't currently have a Linux desktop, though I use Debian Linux on my server, but I'm happy using that too.

I'm most likely to go for a new Mac, despite the silliness of the name "MacBook" and the new style keyboard, simply because the integration of applications under Mac OS X has made my life so easy over the past two years.

New Vista laptops will be out soon, though, and one I saw recently looked very usable so I may try them out. Or I could join the growing minority of people like Cory Doctorow, SF writer, uber-blogger and editor of BoingBoing, by buying some serious laptop hardware and installing Linux on it.

Once I've made my choice I'll then have to decide what to do with the old computer, the one I'm using now.

I don't think I could bear to have it recycled, and it would be useless as a hand-me-down. I'll probably keep it, and might even frame it and hang it on the wall as a reminder of the good times, the fun we had together and the thoughts it helped me to express.

Fortunately, of course, it isn't sentient and can't read what I'm writing, or it might decide to shut itself down before I finish this art


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet




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