SPARCbook 3000ST: The coolest 90s laptop




A few weeks back I managed to pick up an incredibly rare laptop in immaculate condition for $50 on Kijiji: a Tadpole Technologies SPARCbook 3000ST from 1997 (it also came with two other working Pentium laptops from the 1990s).

I had to drive almost three hours to pick it up on the other side of Toronto, but for a SPARCbook it was definitely worth it seeing as I’m more likely to find the lost city of Atlantis than another one of these again.

So, what makes this the coolest laptop of the 1990s?


Well, basically the specs:

  • A 170MHz Fujitsu TurboSPARC CPU (the fastest SPARC CPU before everyone moved to the 64-bit UltraSPARC platform) as well as Sun’s OpenBoot PROM
  • A whopping 128MB of RAM (in 1997, this was unimaginable in a laptop)
  • Sun Microsystems Solaris 2.5.1 UNIX installed with the OpenWindows desktop
  • A slim magnesium alloy body that is military-grade (this thing is entirely metal except for the ergonomic handrest)
  • An IBM Thinkpad keyboard (IBM was an early investor in Tadpole)
  • Built-in ISDN, Ethernet, PCMCIA, external SCSI, keyboard, mouse, VGA and sound in/out ports
  • An LCD readout of system status
  • A price tag of $21,000 US

Sun computers were an expensive desire for many computer geeks in the 1990s, and running UNIX on a SPARC-based laptop was, well, just as cool as it gets. SPARC was an open hardware platform that anyone could make, and Tadpole licensed the Solaris UNIX operating system from Sun for their SPARCbooks. Tadpole essentially made high-end UNIX/VAX workstations on costly, unusual platforms (PowerPC, DEC Alpha, SPARC) but only their SPARCbooks were popular in the high-end UNIX market of the 1990s.


So I brought this thing home and tried to find a power supply that would work. Unfortunately, it takes a very strange diameter power plug and power requirements (12V @ 4.6A). So I went on eBay and out of sheer luck, someone in New York was selling an original SPARCbook power supply in mint shape for $30.

A week later it arrived and I was ready to go! The picture to the left was taken a few seconds before turning it on (I wanted one last pic in case it caught on fire).

It booted up right away and I immediately interrupted the boot process (Pause-A) to interact with the OpenBoot PROM. The banner command (below) showed the installed RAM, and once I ran set-defaults followed by reset (same as Pause-R) the system booted the Solaris 2.5.1 installation on the hard disk! You can watch a video of me booting the system on YouTube here:


The only problem? I didn’t have the root password.

Normally this isn’t a problem because you can boot a Solaris installation CD or network image and clear the root password in the /etc/shadow file. BUT….I have no SCSI CD-ROM that I can plug into the external SCSI port on the SPARCbook, and the Ethernet port on the back is actually an ISDN port (the real Ethernet port on the back is a weird custom high-density port that goes to an AUI, so no luck there).

But then I remembered that the SPARCbook 3000 models used an IBM IDE 2.5” HDD. And I have an old USB to 2.5” IDE enclosure I kept from years ago! Better yet, I’ve also got a Sun Blade 1500 running Solaris 10 that has lots of USB ports!

I removed the 2.5” HDD from the SPARCbook, added it to the USB enclosure, popped it into my Sun Blade 1500 and mounted the slice layout on the hard disk. Even if I didn’t already know Solaris, the SPARCbook manual that I downloaded detailed everything possible about the hardware and the Solaris operating system, including the default slice layout (Sun boot labels create one big partition that is sliced into sub-partitions, and slice 2 always refers to the entire disk). They even made a diagram for it all in the manual:


The first thing I did was make a complete clone of the hard disk (c0t0d0s2) on my Solaris 10 desktop in case anything went wrong, and then I modified the /etc/shadow file on the root filesystem (c0t0d0s0) and cleared the password field for the root user. Then I popped the 2.5” HDD back into the SPARCbook and booted it up - and Voila! No root password needed.

Of course, before modifying /etc/shadow I first made a backup of it so that I could later crack any passwords in it using John the Ripper on my Linux desktop. While the accounts for the developers were authenticated across the network using NIS (no local password hashes stored), the original root password on the SPARCbook was ctladmin (perhaps ctl stood for computing technology lab?), and the only other local account was called dnsptest and had a password of 1gtaffar (which perhaps stood for one great affair?).

You can check out videos of the SPARCbook here:

After typing openwin, I played around with the OpenWindows desktop:


Since UNIX never had any laptop-like features such as external displays, hibernate mode or sleep mode, Tadpole added those features using a set of services called the Notebook Computing Environment (NCE), which has a nice configuration panel too:


Of course, what did I want to do after getting it running? A bit of detective work. I wanted to find out more about what this machine was used for, and by whom.

The first thing I noticed was that it was a JAVA software development workstation. There were a plethora of different JAVA programs, including source code, test builds, and code merge folder structures that were developed internally by Nortel. Not only was Nortel listed in the directory/package structure, many of the programs inherited from Nortel class names. Sybase was installed and used to store the program data, and numerous third-party additions were installed (e.g. VisiBroker).

Moreover, the source code files, test data and /etc/passwd entries had the full names of the people on the project that I could easily Google. Many of their LinkedIn profiles or academic biographies listed their detailed work on the project during their tenure at Nortel. This information was key to me constructing what the project was and where it went.

So what was the main project? It was a middleware suite of programs called Distributed Network Services Platform (DNSP) geared towards providing mobile wireless users with Yahoo-like features such as accessing stock information or buying products online. There were other project-related keywords around the codebase like Cameleon and Smartmove that may have been contenders for a finished product name.

I can also tell you that the project involved 5 developers from late 1996 to early 1999, and was spun off shortly thereafter to a company called Saraide Inc. ( ). The Nortel team was likely working closely with Saraide during much of that time, since the SPARCbook was made in 1997 and given the host name fido. Fido was also the name of the 2-way wireless email service from Saraide’s first client, Microcell Telecommunications Inc. ( ). Furthermore, fido was listed frequently as an email provider throughout the DNSP codebase and in the prototypes/demos. Given the pristine cosmetic condition of the SPARCbook alongside the numerous network shares (NFS mounts) to other Nortel systems that were configured on it, it may not have been a main developer workstation for DNSP. Instead, it was likely a portable developer workstation for demonstrating DNSP functionality at later stages of the development process to Saraide (using the local dnsptest user account I mentioned earlier).

So, Nortel started working on providing e-Commerce services across wireless connections back in 1996. However, they quickly decided they couldn’t bring it to market, and focused their efforts on selling it to Saraide. Saraide ended up buying it from Nortel in 1999 and then quickly sold it to InfoSpace Inc. ( ), which didn’t do anything with it (probably because RIM owned the mobile wireless world by that time). Today, InfoSpace is called Blucora and primarily focuses on tax software.

So, what am I going to use this SPARCbook for?

Well, for starters, the next presentation I give to a UNIX or Linux-oriented group is going to be given from this SPARCbook for shock/novelty value. After all, it has VGA output for a projector and a suite of office programs ;-)

Of course, I cleaned up the projects that the previous owner had, removed any software packages I’ll never use to free up space on the filesystems (I kept the original JDK, Web and Sybase servers for posterity though), removed old user accounts and NFS configuration, changed the host name (to sparcy), set the default shell to BASH, installed DOOM ( ), stopped any services I didn’t need to speed up the boot process, as well as spiced up the desktop a bit to my liking (the background is made up of miniature Sun logos):