Back around 1992 there was a notebook computer called the Panasonic Business Partner P-180. It was a lightweight, rugged, clamshell notebook computer with a nearly full sized keyboard that you could type on all day, a 9 or 10-inch monochrome LCD display with no backlight that was very readable in ambient light and sunlight, a single 720k floppy, and a small 12 volt gel cell battery that ran the machine for 8 hours. The CPU was a CMOS 80C88, OS was DOS 3.1 and it was an outstanding “text mill”. With a Wordstar clone and a PIM called Tornado installed, I had everything I needed. I could sit at a picnic table and bang out text documents all day long, make and refer to notes instantly. It was silent, no fan, no hard disk, no heat, and the keyboard was quiet, perfect for taking notes at a meeting or in college. It had an external 12V power input so if I brought along a little 4 Ah gel cell (size of a soda can), I could run for 30 or 40 hours without recharging. Today I wish I still had that machine.

Fast forward to 2007 and there is NOTHING like this machine on the market. We have battery technology today that is light years better than gel cells but every single notebook computer made is jammed with power hungry devices that give a battery life of 2 to 3 hours, which is FAR less than acceptable. With today’s technology one could design a machine just like the P-180 with a transflective display and a backlight that can be turned off and only used in darkness. Replace the 720k floppy with a pair of 2 GB SD memory card slots (giving 2,500 times the memory capacity of the old Panasonic). VIA makes an x86 CPU that runs on about 1 watt of power. Add WiFi that can be powered down when not in use. Perhaps add a USB port or two. Run Linux on it, and you’ve got it made. There’s plenty of memory to install Linux, Firefox, and Open Office and have 3 gigabytes left over.

This would be the ultimate machine for students taking notes in classes. They could run all day and into the night without recharging. Use it in the library for research without constantly worrying about running the battery down. Relax, use it all you want. Set it on your lap and not burn your legs from the heat since there IS no heat. It would also be excellent for news reporters / journalists in the field, just like the old Tandy Model 100 once was. It would be great for authors, lawyers, or anyone who would like to sit under a tree and write all day without the least concern about using up that precious little 3 hours of battery life, and it would be rugged since there is no delicate hard disk to worry about. In fact, this machine has no moving parts at all except for the keyboard contacts. It would be ideal for travelers and backpackers since it would be lighter than an average notebook and far more rugged. World travellers / backpackers / sailors use their machines mainly to compose and post blog entries and to do email. This machine can do that, much more, and run for 25 hours on a battery charge.

If I were designing this machine I would make the battery pack easily replaced so one could have two packs–one charging while the other is in use. Come home at night, swap battery packs, and you’re ready for another day. If this machine could be powered and charged directly from a 12V automobile cigarette lighter it would be fantastic.

And a machine like this can retail for $300. Why doesn’t it exist? I don’t need this machine to store 8,000 mp3 files, and six episodes of “Lost”, and play the latest video games because I don’t use it for listening to music or watching video. I have other machines for that. I would use this little machine for practical work: referring to and making notes, and writing. Isn’t this what people do all day in school and in meetings? Yes it is! And the machine I describe supports a browser and WiFi so web research can be done and one has access to things like Google docs and so forth when connected to the net.

Such a machine would be simple and straightforward to design, yet year after year I wait for a machine like this to come along and it never does. What’s more, I run into applications that other people have, situations that are described to me where this machine would be the perfect solution, so I know there is a market for it. I recently became friends with a well-known columnist at eWeek magazine because his “holy grail” machine is very much like what I describe here, but there’s nothing out there in the marketplace. We had hopes for the Palm Foleo but the project was canceled a couple days ago. Just this evening I spoke with a friend who is traveling in Vietnam and this machine would be ideal for him.

Are any of the manufacturers listening? Do they do any market research? Do they realize that not everybody wants a power-sucking super wowee-zowee dual-core turbocharged racing laptop that leaves second-degree burns on their legs if they use it as a laptop? All I want to do is type some text and do an email okay? That’s it. A Celeron 433 from 1999 is plenty of compute power for this machine.

I am just astounded that nobody makes a machine like this. It would sell like crazy to the right audience.

NOTE: (Added April 15, 2008) I wrote a follow on blog entry to this post that discusses the new Asus Eee: