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An Interview With the Designer of the Wang LapTop

Jonathan Huntington, Product Manager, Wang Desktop Systems By Vincent Flanders, ACCESS 87 Staff

(From Access 87: The Magazine for Wang System Users, February 1987. Copyright © 1987 Data Base Publications.)

Note: The Wang LapTop was a huge monster of a machine that weighed, if I remember correctly, 20 pounds. Worse, it wasn't a true IBM compatible -- it used IBM emulation. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to date someone who emulated a woman.

At the time, it was fairly advanced, but it seems so quaint now -- 10Mb hard disk (yes, that's ten megabytes), an 8Mhz NEC V80 chip (yes, that's eight megahertz), an internal printer that could only print 15 pages before needing a new ribbon, and a price tag of $3,999 to $5,799. Ouch.

We've come a long way, haven't we?

ACCESS: When was the computer we know as the LapTop first conceived?

Huntington: In January 1985. Most of us felt it was important to have a portable as the last bastion of office automation-for those people who aren't really in the office, but who have the same office automation requirements for doing their work. We ended up working on the ultimate computer for this type of person.

There are always trade-offs when you're dealing with battery operation. We were looking for a way to store memory that wouldn't cost a fortune. At that point, the Hewlett- Packard had nonvolatile CMOS memory that went for $200 for 100K.

There was a problem about what type of disk drives to use. Look around, you don't see too many dual-disk systems. People get tired of them. So we decided on a hard disk.

We designed a unique Winchester from the ground up, which has pretty much become the standard for the industry. We designed it with a third party. Our requirements were five watts of power to run it, which was unheard of. We also wanted it to handle 100Gs (unit of acceleration equal to the acceleration of gravity) of shock without putting it into a one- by one-foot padded box. That's what the third party first proposed for a solution; they were sure they could design it if we gave them all the room in the world to pad it. The first hurdle was to convince them that wasn't what we were looking for. So Wang developed a system to retract the heads into a safe landing zone to absorb the shock. We started out looking for a product that could handle 100Gs, but wound up with one that can handle up to 2000Gs. That translates to dropping a LapTop from 34 inches onto the floor.

ACCESS: Where did the concept for the internal printer come from?

Huntington: That was a tough decision but it fell into line with our concept for the LapTop-to make the ultimate portable computer. If you're using a machine, you don't want to lug around different pieces and assemble it every time you sit down. You want everything in one package. The applications that were really looking at the LapTop were field sales. Nearly all the people we talked to in that area have a requirement to do some type of documentation at the customer's location: contracts, agreements, clarifications, notes or minutes. The printer became a requirement of the high-end user-to whom we were targeting the product.

ACCESS: How did you decide on the display?

Huntington: It was a natural progression of the technology. We weren't satisfied with what we had, we looked at a lot of displays and this particular display offered the highest contrast.

ACCESS: What about gas plasma displays such as those used by the Toshiba and Compaq Portable III?

Huntington: The problem with both gas plasma and electroluminescence (EL) is that you have to give up battery operation and go with AC. One benefit to battery operation is it conserves power. This makes the package smaller and gets rid of bigger problems like heat distribution. How do you get rid of it? The more power you use, the larger the battery, the bigger the machine. It becomes a cycle.

Because we saw the display technology moving, we decided early on to make the screen removable so it could be upgraded later.

ACCESS: How many versions of the LapTop were there before you decided on a final design?

Huntington: It started exactly as you see it today; I designed it that way from the beginning. Some people might have thought it risky, but I went ahead with the plastic tooling even before I was guaranteed there was a Winchester to go inside. I had great faith we could do it and we did.