Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Pen Computing Magazine, Issue #10 May/June 1996

Three years ago, Compaq set out to build the fabled Dynabook. Instead they made the Concerto and never realized how much they had done right.

As editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine, I have access to all sorts of interesting gadgets. So why am I am writing this article on a Concerto, Compaq's short-lived entry into the pen computing field?

It's because the Concerto is one of the most brilliant computers ever made. Its "rear engine" clamshell design has a feathery light and thin keyboard that works surprisingly well and that can be unhinged from the main body of the computer. With the keyboard, it is one of the most flexible computers imaginable. You can literally operate it in any position. Without the keyboard, the Concerto is a pen tablet. If someone walked up to me this minute and offered me a brand new 150mhz Pentium notebook with active matrix color screen in exchange for my Concerto, I would decline. Pentium notebooks are a dime a dozen, but there's only one Concerto with a pen interface, and you can't get them anymore. Until someone makes a new Concerto, I'll keep mine. Why these strong feelings about my Concerto? I am not nostalgic when it comes to technology. I wouldn't dream of still using my old Osborn 1 or my Victor 9000, or even my first generation Apple MessagePad. Nice though they were in their days, they no longer have a practical use. Is it because the Concerto is a pen computer and I feel an obligation to stubbornly hold on to it? I don't think so. In my line of work, it makes no sense to hold on to a discontinued computer. Most of the time, I don't even use the Concerto as a pen computer. I rarely take the keyboard off and write onto the screen so that one of my eight handwriting recognizers can translate my scribbling into words.

The reason why I still use my old Concerto is because it does so many things right. It has adequate processing power, memory, and disk space to handle my needs. It has wonderful battery life through its smart power management system. And when I run out of juice, the Concerto recharges in less than an hour even while I work on it. The pen is by far the best pointing and editing device I've ever used. Because of its unique design, I can always find a comfortable position for the Concerto, no matter where I am, in the middle seat of a crowded airplane, in my office, or even browsing the Web while lounging on a sofa. The controls and connectors are all in the right place, and unlike last year's generic notebook, the Concerto's timeless design still looks sleek and elegant. I never even have to reboot my Concerto. It's always on. When I don't use it, it sleeps. Should it ever run out of battery, it's smart enough to save itself onto disk before the battery dies. What more could you ask for?

There's a lesson here. Sometimes, ingredients add up to more than the sum of the parts, and sometimes the most impressive spec sheet means nothing.

As a wannabe Dynabook (Alan Kay's computer of the future) the Concerto was a dud. But in the process of designing it, Compaq inadvertently created a master piece in its own right. After all is said and done, the pen remains a damn good idea; there are times when a keyboard-no matter how used we are to it-is an absurdly inefficient way to communicate with a computer; and a machine that really does the job is invaluable, especially in the field.

This is why I am thrilled to see small vertical market manufacturers take the ball with leading edge technology and include it into thoroughly practical tools that help people get the job done day-in and day-out. Maybe a quiet revolution is underway, and the big mainstream computer companies just haven't noticed it yet.