You would think the death of Andrew Kay — a brilliant man whose technological innovations paved the way for today’s personal and mobile computers including the laptop, iPhone and iPad — would be the top story on the Internet’s major tech blogs and splashed across the front pages of the world.
Andrew Kay’s name is not a household one — surely people are more familiar with Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates or even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — yet the technology Kay invented and oversaw in the early 1980s helped transform the way we interact with computers big and small, and that effect is still felt today.
Kay lived and breathed electronics. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he started his career in engineering at the Bendix Corporation, a manufacturing company that made, among other things, electric power systems for cars, airplanes and submarines.
After that, Kay joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a two-year stint before he decided to go into business for himself.
Non-Linear Systems is where Kay would foster his inventive side, creating the world’s first digital voltometer (an instrument that measures electrical voltage). The company manufactured voltometers and digital frequency readers for years before Kay set his sights on the next big thing: Personal computers.
When Kay founded the Kaypro Corporation in 1981, his company joined a litany of others that pushed to make personal computing something mainstream. Atari, Commodore, Apple and IBM were just some of the companies that were hoping their machine would find space on the desks and countertops of American homes. Even the British Broadcasting Company, in partnership with Acorn Computers, developed a computer.
But these computers all had one thing in common: They were meant to be stationary. You’d plug them in and set them up once, and wherever the computer was, that’s where it stayed.
Kay saw this as stifling. In 1981, he sought to change the industry by manufacturing a fully-portable computer, one that was designed from the inside-out to move from one place to another with some regularity. And he did just that.
When the Kaypro II hit the market in 1982, it was not the world’s first portable computer. That claim to fame went to the Osborne I, which was made commercially available one year earlier. But the Osborne I’s debut allowed Kaypro to capitalize on the flaws of the fledgling machine by building a better, more-solid computer, which it did.
Instead of using a plastic case, as the Osborne I had, the Kaypro II used a rugged, durable all-metal case. The Kaypro II also had a nine-inch screen, more than double the screen real estate of the Osborne I. The Kaypro II also launched with more software than the Osborne I, making it attractive for both personal and commercial use right out of the box. Anyone who still wasn’t sold on the Kaypro II over the Osborne I just had to look at the price: $1,595 for the Kaypro II, $200 less than that of the Osborne I.
“Back then few thought of making a computer you could carry around,” author Paul Freiberger told The New York Times. “It was loved because he got almost everything right.”
Thousands used a Kaypro II to connect to the Internet, including Arthur C. Clarke who would collaborate with a partner in Los Angeles via modem for the book and subsequent film “2010: Odyssey Two.” Magician Penn Gillette, one half of the group Penn & Teller, wrote four published columns using the computer. Accountants, doctors and lawyers used a Kaypro II daily to keep track of important records. Mechanics and engineers configured machines and ran diagnostics using the Kaypro II.
Kaypro sold a lot of computers. In 1985, the company’s revenue topped $150 million. The company was third in the computer world, behind Apple and IBM. It filed for an initial public offering and went on to make millions for its shareholders largely based off the sales of Kaypro II machines. The Kaypro II made the industry realize that portable computers were not just a novelty — they were the thing of the future.
But Kaypro Corporation would have a limited run in the history of computing. The company’s choice of operating system for the Kaypro II and later machines would be its eventual undoing.
Many early computers used a text-based operating system called “CP/M” developed by Digital Research in the early 1970s. The Kaypro II was no different. But just as the Kaypro II reached its peak, computer manufacturers started moving away from CP/M toward a new operating system developed by Microsoft for the IBM called MS-DOS.
Though support for CP/M waned, Kaypro continued developing and marketing machines running the operating system. The company even found a small, loyal following of Kaypro users who continued to use the machine despite Kaypro’s insistence on using an obsolete system.
Eventually, the lack of software choices for CP/M forced Kaypro to start making machines compatible with MS-DOS, but by then it was too late. Kaypro couldn’t compete with the vast amount of MS-DOS machines that were already on the market. In 1990, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, then Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1992. Three years later, a judge would sell off the company’s remaining assets.
Despite making a wildly popular portable machine, Andrew Kay never really got his due for being the mobile computing innovator that he was. “The Kaypro computer was a necessary step in getting to the iPad,” Freiberger charged.
Without Kay, it’s possible computers would never have made the transition from our desks to our pockets.