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A requiem for the once-mighty Toshiba laptop

If Toshiba can disappear as a mobile computing brand, no tech company—no matter how dominant—is guaranteed eternal life.

A requiem for the once-mighty Toshiba laptop
[Photos: Johann H. Addicks/Wikimedia Commons; Raimond Spekking/Wikimedia Commons]

The Toshiba laptop is dead.

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Last year, the Japanese electronics giant agreed to sell its PC business to rival Sharp—itself now owned by Taiwanese manufacturing kingpin Foxconn—for the low, low price of $36 million. After the deal closed last October, Sharp retained the right to use the Toshiba name during a period of transition. Now it’s wrapping up that phase by adopting the brand Dynabook, which has a long history of its own as a line of Toshiba portables. The Tecra and Portégé lines—themselves venerable—will now be part of the Dynabook brand rather than Toshiba.

This development’s impact on the market will likely not be an enormous whoop, as Toshiba had spent the last half-decade or so scaling back its PC division. In recent years, the company has struggled with self-inflicted problems ranging from an accounting scandal to an ill-advised decision to enter the nuclear-power plant industry, as detailed in a 2017 Quartz story. The exit from PCs was part of a general shedding of consumer operations, which also included its TV arm. (Toshiba never became a force in more newfangled categories such as tablets.)

At just nine pounds, 1985’s Toshiba T1100 was impressively portable for a full-powered PC. [Photo: Johann H. Addicks/Wikimedia Commons]
Once upon a time, however, laptops were very good to Toshiba—and vice versa. Despite what a new Dynabook press release contends, the company did not release the first laptop computer in 1985. By then, numerous other laptops had appeared, dating back to 1981’s Epson HX-20 and including a pioneering 1983 model from Dynabook’s owner, Sharp. But the 1985 Toshiba in question, the T1100, was the first hit laptop to run Microsoft’s MS-DOS. The company parlayed that success into a dominant position in portable computing that lasted until the early part of this century.

In the 1990s, when I worked at PC World magazine, I had stock laptop-buying advice for folks who couldn’t be bothered to read reviews of the latest machines: “Buy the best Toshiba you can afford.” That was a sensible strategy for years. At worst, any given Toshiba was a reasonable choice at its price point. At best, models such as the Libretto subnotebook were innovative trendsetters.

In the 1990s, if you liked your laptops tiny, you wanted a Libretto. [Photo: Marus/Wikimedia Commons]
The Portégé line now being adopted by Dynabook is a quarter-century old—a record of PC longevity surpassed perhaps only by Lenovo’s ThinkPad—and there was a time when it was the definitive sexy thin-and-light notebook computer. I lusted after the Portégé for years, could never afford one, and instead made do, circa 1998, with a model from Toshiba’s budget-priced Satellite line. It was a bit of a boat anchor, but you know what? It was the best Toshiba I could afford, and it was a sensible choice.

The Portégé A30, one of the final laptops to bear the Toshiba name—and henceforth a Dynabook product. [Photo: courtesy of Dynabook]
As Dynabook, the company that was Toshiba’s PC business will sell a few Tecra and Portégé laptop models, a pocket-sized, brick-shaped PC called the DynaEdge, and a pair of Google Glass-esque DynaEdge AR glasses for industrial applications. It’s a far better fate than disappearing entirely. But I’m haunted by a bit from an article I stumbled across while researching this article. Published in 2003—when Toshiba’s laptop leadership was already slipping away—it raised the then-unlikely prospect of the brand dying, at least as a maker of PCs:

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But if this massive Japanese electronics producer can’t catch itself from falling, we might one day talk about the original Satellite Pro laptop in the same nostalgic tone as we do that of old Tandy and Commodore computers— both companies that could not keep up with innovations in the computer industry.

It took more than 15 years for that scenario to play out, but it has. Maybe that should be a lesson for every big tech company that currently seems so deeply entrenched that it’s tough to imagine it joining the likes of Tandy, Commodore, and—it still feels weird to say this—Toshiba.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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