Technologizer

Clamshell! The Story of the Greatest Computing Form Factor of All Time

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The Grid Compass, the first clamshell-case laptop computer

In the early 1990s, for instance, Zeos’s Freestyle let you swivel its screen, a design which looked appealing to me at the time but didn’t go anywhere.

Giraffetop

Google Patents

I’m also fond of a perversely brilliant 1996 patent on a laptop design that was part clamshell, part giraffe: Telescoping extensions and rear support stalks let you raise the screen to eye level. Like nearly every modified clamshell, it complicated what had been elegantly simple without enough new benefits. In patent-drawing form, the whole setup looks rather precarious; as far as I know it never hit the market.

Others have tried to cram two screens into one laptop, such as Xentex’s Flip-Pad Voyager, which had the standard clamshell hinge plus another in the middle of the keyboard, and twin 13.3″ screens which could be spun about separately. (It made a bit of a splash in 2003, but either never shipped or came and went so quickly that it might as well not have.)

Xentex Flip-Pad Voyager

PCMag.com

The most concerted, high-profile effort of all to transform the clamshell into something new was the Tablet PC, which Microsoft began promoting in 2000 as the future of mobile computing. Bill Gates famously predicted that it would dominate the market within five years, a prognostication which I’m sure was sincere but turned out to be spectacularly off-base.

Some Tablet PCs were proto-iPads: slabs without a hinge or a keyboard. Most, however, were convertibles, with newfangled hinges which let you open the case like a conventional laptop or flip the screen around into tablet orientation. (The convertibles were reminiscent of a design which ever-inventive Grid itself tried late in its life.)

Tablet PCs

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A few convertibles remain on the market, and more will presumably arrive when Windows 8, with its touch-friendly interface, ships. But within a couple of years of the Tablet PC’s debut, it was obvious that the vast majority of PC users didn’t want to convert their laptops into tablets. They just wanted to use them in pretty much the way that Grid had envisioned back in 1982.

The clamshell didn’t get a truly formidable competitor until Apple announced and shipped the first iPad in 2010. Instead of building on Grid’s 1982 innovation, as Microsoft’s Tablet PC had done, Apple’s tablet simply abandoned it. There’s no hinge and no physical keyboard: Unlike nearly every other would-be laptop replacement of the past three decades, the iPad is simpler than a conventional PC rather than more complex.

Brydge

Brydge

That hasn’t stopped plenty of folks– including me–from using the iPad with external keyboards, such as Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Case, in an attempt to mimic the virtues of a clamshell. The high-profile Kickstarter project Brydge goes further, turning the iPad into a genuine clamshell device which looks suspiciously like a MacBook Pro.

Then there’s Microsoft’s Surface, the first PC which the company that’s synonymous with PCs has ever designed on its own, and probably the iPad’s most ambitious rival to date. Clad in a magnesium case–like the Grid Compass–it’s a tablet, not a clamshell.

Microsoft

But the most innovative thing about Surface is its super-thin optional keyboard, which snaps onto the case magnetically. Pop it on and pull out the case’s built-in kickstand, and the Surface becomes a tablet that’s trying its darndest to duplicate the functionality of a clamshell laptop.

You’d have to be wearing technological blinders to deny that clamshell devices have finally lost their monopoly on portable computing. And you don’t have to be a brilliant futurist to see the day coming when the average mobile computing device is an iPad-style tablet, not a direct descendant of Grid’s 1982 machine.

Still, it’s hard to imagine any design rendering the the clamshell utterly obsolete. No matter how astonishing computers are in 2082 and beyond, I’ll bet that some of them will have a screen, a keyboard and a hinge in the middle. Why would the world want to give up something so fundamentally useful?

MORE: Six Tablets to Consider for Windows 8’s October Launch

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19 comments
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buy online home theatre
buy online home theatre

Wow that's quite informative as well as interesting to read. Truly speaking I enjoyed reading ur post. I would try to follow your informations.

markhig
markhig

I don't know the timing but the DEC ONE was the first laptop I ever saw. It hinged at the back for a full screen, had the first 3.5 inch floppies, and ran MS-DOS not some proprietary operating system. I owned a Kaypro at time and wanted to own a Compaq luggable. The Grid may technically be the first Clamshell but it did't hinge at the right spot. 

Greg Lloyd
Greg Lloyd

Nice piece! For a completist history, one more early clamshell concept and photo:

The Electronic Document System / IGD circa 1980. This was a hypertext system demonstrating concepts for electronic maintenance manuals and other branching path hypertext developed by Steve Feiner, Sandor Nagy and Andy van Dam at Brown University.

The authoring and display software actually ran on a VAX 11/780 with Ramtek display, but Andy van Dam worked with a RISD industrial design student to design and build a mockup that included a flat screen display (with hypothetical touch keyboard) and hand held circuit probe  (to pick up test signals and choose diagnostic paths)

The prototype uses a clamshell configuration with the display / touchpad where a keyboard would be, and folding top to make it easy to carry. With the top closed, it's a dead ringer for a 1990's laptop (see photo)

Electronic Document System - description and references

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E...

EDS electronic maintenance manual concept (photo)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F...

I was the NRL co-sponsor for this research. It aimed to demonstrate how electronic manuals and hypertext technology could support maintenance and repair of complex US Navy sonar, signal processor, and other systems with limited space (e.g. subs) vs bulky paper manuals that were difficult to store, use and update. Eventually got there!

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

In many ways, they still haven't improved on the clamshell design--note that if you want a real keyboard with your iPad, there are special cases available that essentially turn the physical configuration into something that is almost identical to the clamshell design. Indeed, that's what Microsoft did with the Surface tablet with its detachable keyboard.

David Zapen
David Zapen

Include the Commodore SX-64 in my category of semi-portables like the Osborne Kaypro, with a keyboard that doubled as a lid, protecting the CRT screen and at least one 5¼" floppy disk drive.  Today's semi-portables are all-in-one computers based in the monitor or zero-footprint machines built into the keyboard.

Joan Of Argghh!
Joan Of Argghh!

I had a Zeos clamshell that was all of 2 megs, I think. And a Kaypro lunchbox that was actually quite brilliant.

ekivemark
ekivemark

I remember using a Grid Clamshell Laptop.... Things have improved a lot. I also remember having an IBM Portable PC, complete with a 286 Add in processor card, Hercules Graphics Card and a 20MB Hard drive (all after market add ons) 

Fourthletter58
Fourthletter58

Grammar police !

"It’s not that nobody tried"

Research police !

"A touchpad was first developed for Psion's MC 200/400/600/WORD Series in 1989.[4] Cirque introduced the first widely available touchpad, branded as GlidePoint, in 1994.[5] The touchpads included in Apple Computers’ PowerBooks were based upon Cirque’s GlidePoint technology "

harrymccracken
harrymccracken

I know about the Psion and had and used a Cirque, but I was talking about the trend to build touchpads into laptops.

Retron
Retron

Trackpads invented in 1994? Nope, 1989 by a British Company - Psion. Quite odd that the author of the article should overlook a simple Wiki reference!

http://www.guidebookgallery.or...

harrymccracken
harrymccracken

I was an am a Psion fanatic. But what they did was quite different than the later design used by Apple and others.

His Shadow
His Shadow

Trackpads invented in 1994? Nope

That's right. Nope.

a design first seen in Apple’s 1994 PowerBook 500

Not invented, first seen.

Michael Driver
Michael Driver

Tablets are crap! I don't own one, and never will.

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

 I agree. Weak hardware, gimped interface, and severely limited user freedom, it still boggles my mind that Apple convinced anyone that this was a good thing. Confuses me even more that people have experienced it and still don't understand why tablets are awful.

Janeskid
Janeskid

Didn't someone named Sinclare make a pot0type of a portable in the late '60s or early '70s? I'm thinking he was British and it my have been reported in a magazine called "Science News" or "New Scientist".

Rush Strong
Rush Strong

That would be the Sinclair Research (

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S....  They offered various kit and completed computers, but (I think) they all needed a TV to plug into - not quite a true portable.