Color came to the movies in the 1930s, TV in the 1960s and desktop computers in the mid-'80s.
Now, just two years after portable computers first used color, AST Research Inc. is becoming the first major company to sell models that use only color.The Irvine, Calif.-based company on Monday unveils its first subnotebook machine and update models that are aimed at consumers and budget-minded businesses.
Other computermakers, notably Dell Computer Corp. and IBM, have reduced their laptop lineups to just one monochrome model.
"Mono is gone," said Bret Berg, AST's mobile computer brand manager. "The pricing has become so aggressive and so good that you can get into color."
And analyst Jennifer Munson of Workgroup Technologies Inc. in Hampton, N.H., said, "By next year, it will be unheard of for vendors to offer a monochrome."
The rise of an inexpensive color technology known as dual-scan STN is wiping out the price difference between monochrome and color screens. Screenmakers like Hitachi Corp. and a joint venture of Toshiba and IBM have expanded their manufacturing capacity this year, furthering expectations of lower screen prices.
AST will start selling its new dual-scan machines, the Ascentia 500N subnotebook and 800N notebook, for $2,300. That's about $900 more than Dell is charging for a monochrome screen model it brought out last week.
AST's Berg acknowledged the company may initially miss customers who would buy monochrome now because it is less expensive. But he said the company worried about being stuck with too many monochrome models at the end of the year when prices for color machines will have fallen sharply.
"We felt we could have been in trouble in inventory," he said. "We decided to be bold and make the statement now that color is what users ought to be buying."
Just two years ago color began appearing in portable computers with pricey "active matrix" technology, in which every point on the screen has its own light source and thus more resolution. Prices for such machines still typically exceed $4,000.
Demand remains high. IBM introduced its first ThinkPad with an active matrix screen in the fall of 1992 and got 100,000 orders in 50 days. The company has been unable to catch up with demand since.
But it is the less expensive dual-scan screen that is pushing color to the masses.
"The price (difference) has gotten to the point where it's a no brainer," said Andy Seybold, publisher of the Outlook on Mobile Computing. "It's happening about a year sooner than I thought."
In addition to the color screens, AST's new models incorporate the same standard package of software as their desktop machines, including special help guides the company has developed. The package, dubbed AST Works, includes several productivity and reference programs and one that accesses on-line services automatically to search for electronic mail.
The machines use Intel 486 microprocessors and hard drives ranging from 250 to 340 megabytes. The notebook model has a removable floppy diskette drive so an extra battery can be added.