The history of tablet computers and the associated special operating software is an example of pen computing technology, and thus the development of tablets has deep historical roots. The first patent for a system that recognized handwritten characters by analyzing the handwriting motion was granted in 1914.
The first true tablet computers were Cambridge Research’s Z88 and Linus Technologies’ Write-Top, which were introduced in 1987. The Z88 accepted input through a keyboard that was part of the main tablet unit, while the Write-Top accepted input through a stylus.
Imagine a pad-like computer no larger than a notebook that weighs less than 4 pounds, works via a touchscreen with a floating keyboard, connects to the Internet, and costs about $500. Actually, no mental conjuring is necessary. But in 1968, when Alan Kay conceived those requirements for the Dynabook, those things seemed radical. Kay, who is partly responsible for both GUI and object-oriented programming, was working at technology incubator Xerox PARC when he set out the specifications for what he believed would be a powerful educational tool. The Dynabook was never built, but Kay laid out all its details in 1972 in a paper called “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.” Entertainment and business uses might be what we primarily use tablets for now that they’re a reality, but Kay envisioned their highest good as educating children worldwide. It’s no surprise then that some 40 years later, Kay is an active participant in the One Laptop Per Child project.
Apple must indeed have been shy about its tablet called Bashful, because it never got released. Photos of the prototype—and add-ons, like a keyboard, stylus, floppy drive, phone, and handheld carry-case—were revealed last year by design collaborator Frog Design. Frog founder Hartmut Essligner created the idea of the Snow White design scheme for Apple, a minimalist off-white look that started with the Apple IIc and defined the brand until 1990.
If the Gridpad looks like a prototype for the Palm, there’s good reason. They share the same progenitor: Jeff Hawkins, a chief propagator of pen-based computing who went on to found Palm Computing and then Handspring. The touchscreen-based Gridpad worked on a handwriting-recognition system developed by Hawkins that he refined into the Graffiti that was later used in Apple’s Newton and in Palm devices. The Gridpad may have been portable, but at $2,370, it was out of the reach of many, and its popularity was largely limited to healthcare and law enforcement institutions. An institution of a different sort, MoMA, has honored the legacy of the Gridpad by placing one in its design collection.
Wang Laboratories joined the tablet market with a stylus-based system that let users write on any file or annotate it with voice notes via a phone handset and then send the document off by email. The Freestyle was a welcome addition for offices where collaboration on documents could turn into a compilation nightmare. The Freestyle was sold component by component—tablet, stylus, interface card, software, cable, phone, fax, and scanner—or as a package.
The AT&T EO Personal Communicator is the tablet whose name makes it sound the most like a Star Trek device. For its time, it did seem like a bit of science fiction, outfitted as it was with a cell phone, modem, fax, microphone, calendar, database program, and word processor. Two technologies met their beginning and their end in the EO: GO Corp.’s operating system and AT&T Hobbit microprocessors. AT&T acquired both GO and EO, and when the device failed to take off, demand for the technologies plummeted and the companies closed.
If you’ve never heeded the advice “try harder, fail better,” then note that this is Apple’s second appearance in this timeline and you know what’s coming up shortly. The Apple Newton was a PDA, but it was meant to be a tablet computer. Originally, the Newton team was working on what was called Figaro. The requirements for Figaro were a touch-sensitive active-matrix display, IR port, spread-spectrum capabilities, and a retail price of no more than $6,000. The development of the tablet underwent a series of events worthy of its namesake opera. Instead of a tablet, Apple refocused the project to create a device that was lighter in features but more portable and less expensive. And hence the Newton was born.
Bill Gates’ belief in tablets has run the gamut from evangelizing to flogging. In 2000, he spoke at Comdex while the company’s software architect Bert Keeley held aloft a tablet PC prototype. It was outfitted with handwriting recognition that fit all the functions of a PC into a tablet format with a 500- to 600-MHz CPU, 128MB of RAM, 10GB hard disk, and USB ports. Tablets running Windows XP Tablet PC edition from the likes of Compaq and ViewSonic started shipping in 2002, but they never gained much market share.
There’s really nothing more to be said about the Apple iPad that hasn’t been said already, and that says something. The iPad dominates the tablet market. A recent comScore report that focused on tablet traffic in 13 countries showed that the iPad’s reach was the lowest in India but still at 89 percent. Its traffic share in all other measured countries was above 95 percent. Despite increased competition from other operating systems and hardware on a near-constant basis, Apple has retained its leadership role in the current tablet craze.
The One Laptop Per Child program is getting an upgrade with the XO-3, an under-$100 tablet that will incorporate solar charging and satellite connectivity to maximize its usability in the developing nations that it will call home. The XO-3 comes close to the ideals of Alan Kay’s Dynabook. Aside from the functional requirements of serving as a computer, ereader, and camera, the tablet must be durable, which is reflected in the rubber and plastic design by Yves Behar for Fuse Project. One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte put a delivery date of 2012 on the XO-3, but the program has missed deadlines with past projects. Negroponte seems unconcerned, though, having expressed that he’d welcome others taking on the challenge. “We don’t necessarily need to build it, we just need to threaten to build it,” Negroponte said to Forbes when plans for the tablet were announced in 2009.