Does anyone remember the Compaq Portable word processor? Launched in 1983, and weighing in at a mere 28 pounds, it was hailed as a major milestone in portable computing. It was the size of a small suitcase, and weighs more than the carry-on luggage I take for a week-long trip to Asia, but it was still pretty remarkable. Even though I was in grade school when it came out, I remember when my friend’s father got one for work. We would all sit around and type things into it, just amazed to be around a ‘computer’. It did not play games. It did not browse the ‘web’. It did not play music, let alone movies. It just did one thing, it let you type documents.
Today the idea of a single-purpose device is hopelessly antiquated. An iPhone with a portable keyboard can accomplish the same task just as well (that keyboard probably has more computing power), and the iPhone has all those other features added in. We have become accustomed to multi-purpose hardware. After all, that’s what differentiates computers from simple electronics – the ability to do new things. When I look at the Compaq Portable, its size is not what strikes me as odd, it is the fact that it only did that one thing but people were still happy to haul them around.
I think of the Portable every time I pack for a business trip (which is pretty close to a daily experience now). On my last trip to Asia in December I decided not to bring along my laptop, too much weight and some security concerns. Instead, I bought a nice Belkin iPad Air keyboard and case. This saved me six pounds of backache and I was able to accomplish pretty much all I needed of it.
In fact, the only thing that I missed was Microsoft Excel. If you talk to anyone in finance (or plenty of other industries) you will probably hear a similar story. The only thing I need my laptop for is hard-core number-crunching. I tried Apple’s built-in Numbers spreadsheet, which worked fine but just could not match the ease of use that I find with Excel. Admittedly, I am in a niche market of people who make it a religious principle to never use a mouse and only the keyboard when operating in Excel. I am an extremist too, the Mac version of Excel is not good enough, I am old-school and need Excel on Windows.
Increasingly, I find that the only thing I use my laptop for is Excel. There are perfectly adequate PowerPoint replacements for the iPad, and a near infinite supply of MS Word replacements. There are a few tasks that are still easier on a laptop, but they all fall squarely in the ‘nice to have’ column not “need to have’.
But here is the irony. As much as my Windows laptop is now a single-purpose spreadsheet device just like that old Compaq Portable, I see no sign of giving it up any time soon. Excel is an important part of my work life (and, I admit, my personal life), and there are no hints that anyone is working on replicating that ease-of-use for an iPad equivalent. Someday, some clever developer may build a keyboard-centric spreadsheet app, but until that day comes you will have to pry my laptop out my cold dead hands before I give it up.