Four years ago, just as the tech bubble was losing air, a young inventor named Jonathan Betts-LaCroix set out to build the world's smallest laptop computer. Undaunted by the troubled economy, he closed his consulting shop in Los Angeles and sold his three-bedroom house and the Mercedes, too. He and his wife, Lisa, and their 18-month-old son piled into a 37-foot-long Alpha Gold motor home and headed up the coast to San Francisco, to join ranks with his Massachusetts Institute of Technology classmate, Jory Bell.
They parked the camper in front of Bell's warehouse in the gritty industrial quarter of Dogpatch. Bell, who was living in a massive enclosed platform that hung from the warehouse ceiling with steel cables, quit his job as a designer for Apple Computer (AAPL). Then they got to work.
Now, it looks like their throw-caution-to-the-wind gambit is about to pay off in a huge way. They've produced what appears to be the smallest, full-featured personal computer in the world. Less than five inches long and weighing just 14 ounces, the OQO is small enough to fit into a jacket pocket. It has a high-resolution screen, a thumb-style keyboard, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networking capabilities. It's loaded with Windows XP.
By hooking it up to a docking station, it can be connected to a full screen, keyboard, printer, DVD player, and the like. It is, as the duo like to say, the only computer you'll ever need.
"SOMETHING DIFFERENT." The device has the potential to be a big hit. It's generating a lot of buzz at CeBIT America, the tech trade show that's running in New York from May 25 to May 27. An unnamed contract manufacturer in Asia is gearing up to produce the devices en masse. Betts-LaCroix says he has "a list of Fortune 500 companies this long," each ready to buy thousands for their mobile employees.
OQO is part of a long tradition of quirky, sun-baked California startups. Nothing is conventional about the company or its founders, and yet the product is likely to be perfectly at home in the most staid corporate environs.
"Live, die, live, die, live, die -- it's been done for hundreds of generations. Why do anything if you aren't going to do something different?" says Betts-LaCroix, 42. Dressed in a blue T-shirt and black jacket, he still looks more like a graduate student than a corporate executive. He was raised in an eclectic enviroment in Portland, Ore., where his mother was an editor at The Portland Oregonian and his father had a number of careers spanning technology, the arts, and construction.
COMPLAINTS AND FIXES. Betts-LaCroix worked at an electrical contractor after graduating from high school, before going on to Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in environmental geoscience. After college he went to MIT, where he earned a master's degree in earth atmospheric and planetary sciences. That's where he met Bell, who was working on three simultaneous bachelor's degrees in earth atmospheric and planetary sciences, visual design, and literature. Together, they developed an underwater robot that scientists still use to study the ocean's effects on weather.
While that invention was contributed gratis to the public domain, their next efforts were commercial. Betts-LaCroix went to California to be with his wife, a dancer who shared his interest in a style called contact improvisation. After a stint at Caltech's jet-propulsion center, Betts-LaCroix ended up at IBM's (IBM) Almaden Research Center, where Bell worked as well.
The two stayed in touch, even after Bell moved on to Apple's design team, where he worked on the development of the G3 computer and the Titanium Powerbook. "The nature of our relationship was that Jory would send me e-mails complaining about things, and I would try to fix them," says Betts-LaCroix.
DURING THE BUST. In one e-mail, Bell complained that notebook computers were way too bulky. Betts-LaCroix started thinking about the problem. After buying a slew of notebook PCs "and tearing them apart," he determined that the core of a full-fledged computer could be placed in a pocket-sized device. He envisioned an all-purpose modular computer -- a device that could be stripped down or expanded with peripherals at will.
Within a few months, they were working side by side in Dogpatch on what would become the OQO. The name of the company and the computer, pronounced oh-QUE-oh, was picked at random. It doesn't mean anything, but they liked it because a Google search showed that no one else was using it. Betts-LaCroix became chief technology officer and Bell the CEO.
The birth of their business occurred in the midst of the tech bust and the collapse of Nasdaq. "It wasn't an easy time to go fund-raising," Betts-LaCroix says. Nonetheless, they raised $2 million from angel investors, including Olive Hill Venture Partners. In the next round, they raised $14 million from venture-capital firms including Azure Capital Partners, Wasserstein Venture Capital, and Asia Tech Management.
BYE BYE, CAMPER. Now the rough-and-tumble startup atmosphere is beginning to fade. OQO has moved from Dogpatch to a real office, albeit just a few blocks away in San Francisco's Mission District. Although manufacturing is being handled overseas, the startup has created 40 high-level jobs in San Francisco and is likely to double that number this year. "We're hiring so many people, I come to work in the morning, and there are people here I don't even know. It's crazy," says Betts-LaCroix.
And the camper? Betts-LaCroix sold it. It's just too big to fit in the driveway of his new home in San Mateo, Calif. OQO will probably never feel like IBM, but it is getting down to business. By Steve Rosenbush in New York