Walkmac revisited: The inside story of the 'first' portable Mac

A spring cleaning unearths a semi-rare Apple find, the Colby Walkmac, a "modded" portable Macintosh that predates Apple's Macintosh Portable.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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David Carnoy
3 min read
The first Colby Walkmac (1987) was built around a Mac SE motherboard (click image to enlarge). Ken Landau

Recently my brother-in-law, Ken Landau, was doing a major spring cleaning when he came across a bit of computing history in his basement: a Colby Walkmac, the first battery-operated Macintosh computer and first portable Mac with a LCD display.

I'd never heard of the Walkmac, which wasn't built by Apple but by electronics pioneer Chuck Colby, who founded Colby Systems in 1982. The Apple-sanctioned model you see here was "modded" around a stock Mac SE motherboard and hit the market in 1987, two years before Apple put out its Macintosh Portable in 1989 for $7,300. Subsequent Colby models were built around the SE-30 motherboard and had an integrated keyboard (that black mat in the picture above is a mouse pad).

Though certainly not nearly as rare as the Apple that just sold for $671,400, it's still somewhat rare.

Colby Walkmac: The 'first' portable Mac (pictures)

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How did my brother-in-law end up with one? Well, he worked at Apple from 1986-1992 (he started around the same time as Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing) and was investigating sales force automation options when Colby Systems sent him one.

According to Chuck Colby and DigiBarn computer museum in Northern California, "customers ranged from the Grateful Dead rock band to Peter Jennings of CBS News." Thousands of them were sold from 1987 to 1991, "and before Apple came out with their Portable, when anyone called Apple in search of a portable Mac, Apple gave them Colby's phone number."

Even after Apple released the Macintosh Portable, the Colby continued to sell because it had a faster processor (Motorola 68030) than Apple's portable (16MHz 68HC000).

However, after Sony threatened to sue over the name (too close to Walkman), Colby was forced to change it to Colby SE30, which wasn't quite as catchy.

That was then, this is now (click image to enlarge). Ken Landau

Here are this Walkmac's specs:

  • Model No.: CPD-1
  • Year Produced: 1987
  • Operating system: System 6.0.3
  • Processor: Motorola 68030 @ 16Mhz
  • Memory: 1MB
  • Weight: 13 pounds
  • Cost: Around $6,000 (or $11,935.96 today, based on inflation)

Landau, who today is the CEO of Mobileage, an iOS app developer (yes, that's the company's Gluey app on the iPhone and iPad), says the unit is missing a few parts, namely the plug-in hard drive and battery pack, but it does turn on. It's unclear how much it's worth, but everymac.com has it fetching $25 to $50, though that is for a later model with an integrated keyboard (this is a very early unit).

According to Wikipedia, Chuck Colby is mentioned in Steve Wozniak's book iWoz as having introduced Wozniak to early satellite television. That was apparently "the impetus for Wozniak to leave Apple so he could design, then start a company to market the first programmable learning TV remote, the CL 9."

Apple's Macintosh Portable arrived in 1989 and cost $7,300. Apple

What's Colby doing now? Well, last month he put his all-redwood house in the Palo Alto, Calif., hills up for sale for $4 million (Colby says it's the largest all-redwood house in the world). But there's a bit of twist if you want to buy it. According to the San Jose Mercury News' Silicon Beat blog, Colby's "offering it as a 'Life Estate' contract, which means the buyer will have to wait until Colby dies to move in."

Colby thinks he'll still be kicking for another 10 to 15 years but he expects the home will be worth substantially more by the time he dies. "It [Palo Alto hills real estate] has a really great return on your investment -- even better than gold, silver or Apple stock," he said.

No word on whether there are any takers.