Walt Mossberg is retiring this year — he’s already written his last column, hosted his last Code Conference, and taped the final episode of Ctrl-Walt-Delete in front of a live audience in New York. But Walt’s also assembled an impressive collection of notable gadgets over his two decade run as a reviewer and columnist, and we asked him to talk us through some of the more notable items as he cleared out of his office.
This isn’t everything — there’s far too much for that. But there’s nothing quite like Walt talking about gadgets and what they mean, and we tried to pick a few that defined their moments in a way few products now seem to do.
It’s been incredible having Walt on The Verge team, and we’re all going to miss his insight, wit, enthusiasm, and charm. I hope you enjoy this look at him doing what he does best: explaining technology to people who love it just as much as he does.
— Nilay Patel
Amazon announced the first Kindle in November 2007, the same year as Apple released the first iPhone. But the $399 gadget was from a different planet in terms of design, with a chunky asymmetric case, angled hard plastic keyboard, and a reflective hardware scroll display with a dedicated wheel. “If someone had put this on Steve Jobs’ desk, they’d be fired,” says Mossberg. But the Kindle set off an e-reading revolution — modern Kindles start at just $79, with everything from the first design but the e-ink screen stripped away.
RADIO SHACK TRS-80
The Radio Shack TRS-80 — or Trash 80, as it was affectionately called — was one of the first laptops. Or first tablets, if you squint. It ran on four AA batteries, and it was routinely given to journalists in the field because it had a built-in modem that could send files back to the office through an acoustic coupler for a landline phone handset. Mossberg used his TRS-80 all over the world as a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal; as a deputy bureau chief he bought one for every reporter in the bureau. “I honestly think you could draw a line from this to the iPad,” he says.
The Motorola StarTac was arguably the first mobile phone that was also a fashion and cultural icon. The small size and flip design inspired by Star Trek made it an object of desire, and it popped up in movies and TV shows for years. It wasn’t a smartphone — it just made calls. “Carrying this made you cool,” says Mossberg. Flip phones might have all but gone away, but the StarTac lives forever.
IBM THINKPAD 701
The ThinkPad 701 is one of the most iconic laptop designs in history — so much so that it’s sitting in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. To accommodate a full-size keyboard, IBM’s designers developed an ingenious “butterfly” folding mechanism that folded the deck into the case when the lid was closed, and expanded it when the hinge was opened. “This solved a very important problem that people in the early days of laptops that people had.” A few years later, the advent of larger screens meant that full-size keyboards fit well under the screen, and the butterfly keyboard was retired. But it’s still a marvel.
What else is there to say about the iPhone? Apple’s touchscreen wonder changed the course of technology and culture, setting off the mobile revolution. “Smartphones are the new personal computer,” says Mossberg. A decade later, Apple is among the most valuable companies on the planet, and the iPhone is 70 percent of its business. And now we’re all waiting for the 10th anniversary iPhone to blow us all away once again.