Tech Transitions Part 3: Fixed to Mobile Computing

February 19, 2015

This is the penultimate entry in a series of posts about my progression through technology transitions, with comparisons to broader trends across the country.This one tackles the transition from fixed to mobile computing. Earlier posts dealt with the transition from scheduled broadcast to on-demand media and the transition from analog to digital.


The IBM System/360 Mainframe from the 1960s

The IBM System/360 Mainframe from the 1960s

The cabinet-sized and larger mainframe computers of yesteryear earned their nickname of Big Iron. They never moved and were often tended by a priesthood of COBOL programmers. The behemoths began to shrink in the 1970s with the advent of the mini-computer, but into the late 1980s I was interacting with various University of Oklahoma’s mainframes through dumb terminals, seldom actually seeing the hulking units behind the scenes. I worked at Scholars Programs and remember when the boss switched from a dBase III database stored on a personal computer to one on a university mainframe. The mainframe could easily handle large data sets, but it was inflexible in its programming and input and output design. There was the advantage of being able to access the database from multiple terminals, but that advantage disappeared as personal computer networks arose.

The personal computer revolution had begun in the 1970s, and they were far more mobile; sometimes I would haul around what came to be called desktop systems. And It didn’t take long for laptop computers to appear, although I didn’t own one for almost 20 years after my first desktop system. We still have BIG IRON these days, but more in the form of server farms operating cloud services accessed by a variety of desktop, laptop, smart phones, and tablets.

I went mobile 30 years ago, but not with a laptop

1984/1988: Tandy PC-5 & PC-6

1984/1988: Tandy PC-5 & PC-6

I used my first desktop computer in 1978, and six years later I bought my first mobile computer for $120 ($275 in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation). It wasn’t a laptop, but instead a souped-up calculator: the Tandy Pocket Scientific Computer PC-5, programmable in BASIC, sold by Radio Shack and a clone of a Casio machine. It only had a single-line text display, but you could program in complex computations and even some primitive games.

The TI-86

The TI-86

I used that calculator and a successor model until 1998, when I replaced them with TI-86 graphing calculators, which also had a version of BASIC. Over the years I’ve worn out three different TI-86 units and have stuck with them, despite their age, because I can’t transfer their BASIC code to newer models. I use them to do the complex calculations on student labs when I am grading, and am grateful for their portability. I have bought some newer models, but I keep going back to the old 86. In fact, as I edit this post, I just finished coding some simple BASIC code on a TI-86 I bought on eBay, since my copy of one old lab program wouldn’t migrate off a failing unit. The TI-86 is dead! Long live the TI-86!

Laptop computers

I didn’t purchase a laptop computer until 1997, finally lured into paying for the luxury of a fully capable computer when on the road and at work. A laptop computer was a requirement in my master’s degree program in 1999, and I was grateful I had already invested in that first laptop ($1,900 in 2014 dollars).

Technology always races ahead. The table below shows the progression of the various laptop machines I have purchased for myself:

Year Computer Cost Then (and in 2014 dollars) Weight RAM Storage
1997 Toshiba Satellite Pro 430CDT $1,300 ($1,900) 7.4 lb 48 MB 1.26 GB
2005 Averatec 3270-EE1 $950 ($1,150) 4.5 lb 512 MB 60 GB
2008 Asus Eee PC 1000H $464 ($510) 3.2 lb 1 GB 160 GB
2010 Apple MacBook Air $1,420 ($1,530) 2.4 lb 4 GB 128 GB

Notice the continual decline in weight and increase in RAM. Storage capacity dipped a bit at the end, but I was switching from hard drives to my first solid state drive, with a performance and price premium. My use of laptop computers actually peaked in the early 2000s because my main machine at school was a laptop computer for some time, although I almost never moved it, and my use of truly mobile laptops peaked in the late 2000s, when I was making frequent solo hiking trips and would use the laptop to process photos and post to this blog. The biggest project I ever burdened a laptop with was in the early 2010s, when I edited a bunch of video on my Apple MacBook Air to help a colleague craft a state Teacher of the Year video from multiple interviews. I was amazed at how capable the tiny computer truly was, even with a more limited processor, because of its tremendously fast solid state storage.

Smart phones

A smart phone is a leap downward in size and weight from a laptop, and I remember the excitement eight years ago, in January 2007, as I watched Steve Jobs’ justifiably famous keynote where he said Apple would be introducing a widescreen MP3 player with touch controls, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device, repeating that again and again until the realization dawned that those were all aspects of a single computing device: the iPhone.

I had owned limited-function cell phones for some time, and waited until the second generation of iPhones to buy one in the summer of 2008. I’ve bought a new iPhone every two years since then:

Year iPhone Model Screen Size (diagonal inches) Storage
2008 3G 3.5″ 16 GB
2010 4G 3.5″ 32 GB
2012 5 4 64 GB
2014 6 4.7″ 128 GB

Here we see increasing storage size as well over time, but unlike my shrinking laptops, my iPhones keep getting larger screens, for which I’m grateful since that helps with my presbyopia.

Apple, of course, didn’t make the first smart phone. But its breakthrough interface and design, followed later by Google’s Android phones, helped spur a huge rise in smart phone sales. Note in the chart below how desktop sales flattened as folks adopted laptops (notebooks) and then smart phones:

Computing device sales, 1995-2010

Computing device sales, 1995-2010

The use of smart phones continued to grow until they dominated other cell phones types by 2013:

Smart phones now dominate over other cell phone types

Smart phones now dominate over other cell phone types

I’m in good company in my preference for Apple’s iPhone, and its market penetration is remarkable. Consider that only a few models of iPhone rank right up there with countless models of Android phones:

Smart phone operating systems

Smart phone operating systems

And though we see the typical generational differences in smart phone use, notice how all age groups are rapidly adopting them:

Smart phone ownership by age group

Smart phone ownership by age group


But these days my most frequent mobile computer use might well be my iPad tablet computer. After my first iPhones, I was increasingly interested in a large-screen version of a similar device. But the devices on sale were too limited and I longed for Apple to step into that market. When they finally did that in 2010, I immediately sold off a bunch of old media to get the funds to buy the first version of the iPad. I later bought an iPad 2, then a 3rd generation iPad, and now use that 3rd generation model at school while at home I use an iPad Air 2. Over the generations, the screen size has remained stable at 9.7 inches, with me eschewing the iPad Mini’s 7.9 inch screen when that series of tablets launched in 2012.

Tablet computers have taken the public by storm; in only three years the percentage of U.S. adults who owned a tablet computer shot up from 3% to 34%:

Tablet Ownership

Tablet Ownership

Worldwide, smart phone adoption is still surging ahead, while the more expensive tablets are unstandably less popular but still growing at an admirable pace, while the traditional personal computers, a category lumping together desktops and laptops, is in decline:

Computing device sales in the early 2010s

Computing device sales in the early 2010s


My desktop computer is 5 years old and still going strong

The very nature of mobile computing, with greater device wear and tear, means I replace my mobile devices more frequently than my desktop or laptop. At this writing, I’ve owned my latest tablet for about a month, and while my phone is only 6 months old, my MacBook Air laptop is over four years old, and my Windows desktop is over five years old. In fact, while I’ve owned my current desktop I’ve bought four generations of tablet computers and three generations of smart phones. And my desktop computer, enhanced with a huge solid state disk and after a power supply repair, is still going strong and shows no need for replacement.

Due to the nature of my work and my photography and website development hobbies, I will need both desktop and laptop computers for the foreseeable future, but I can see why some people can make do with just an iPad or even just a smart phone. I’m more skeptical, however, or wearable computers such as the “smart watches” now appearing on the scene. First there was the Pebble, then various Android Wear devices, and next month we can expect the Apple Watch to go on sale. I don’t have sufficient income to justify buying a smart watch that will be obsolete in a couple of years; I already spend quite enough on regular replacements of my iPhone, iPad, and Kindle devices. But it will be interesting to see people putting the new smart watches to use. Back in 2004, a student’s iPod convinced me to purchase one, and I never regretted that decision. We shall see if and when I succumb to replacing my trusty old Timex with something smarter.

The final entry in this series on technology transitions addresses the transition from local storage to the cloud.

Tech Transitions, Part 4: Heading into the Cloud >

< Tech Transitions, Part 2: Scheduled Broadcast to On-Demand Media

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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