The 1980s and 90s

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2011-04-25 Print this article Print


The 1980s and '90s

In the 1980s, manufacturers put renewed emphasis on the quest for a device that could recognize handwriting, relying on a stylus for input. During this period, companies like Pencept and the Communication Intelligence Corporation made inroads into that technology; in 1988, Wang Laboratories offered Freestyle, a "digitizing tablet" that allowed users to hand-write or annotate on any computer screen, using a stylus to drag elements around the desktop.

A year later, GRiD Systems Corporation released the GRiDpad touch-screen computer. Also in the late 1980s, GO Corporation began working on PenPoint OS, a stylus-based operating system it would introduce to the public in 1991.

During this period, Apple also took its first steps into the tablet PC arena. In 1987, the company-then still known as Apple Computer, Inc.-produced some glossy concept videos for a device called Knowledge Navigator. Folding on a hinge like a conventional notebook, the tablet featured a talking avatar and the ability to recognize and respond to a user's speech. As a concept, it was even more futuristic than was Kubrick's vision, but Apple was also working on something much more real world: the Newton project, which bore fruit in 1993, with the launch of a handheld device capable of handwriting recognition.    

Even though Apple CEO Steve Jobs would end up killing the Newton in 1997, the device retains a cult following. Whether organizing a "to do" list or cycling through contacts, Newton represented yet another take on the same vision posited by PenPoint OS and the similar software emerging at that time: the ability to manipulate digital assets in ways familiar to anyone who ever used a pen and paper.

For at least the last year of its official life, the Newton also found itself locked in competition with Palm, perhaps the most famous early producer of PDAs. Powered by Palm OS, the devices relied on a stylus-supported graphical interface.  

Microsoft was also exploring touch technology, eventually releasing Windows for Pen Computing for Windows 3.1x as a sort of counterstrike to the PenPoint OS. The company would continue to update the software throughout the 1990s. Years later, Microsoft found itself the target of lawsuits alleging it had tried to destroy Go Corporation in the early 1990s.   

Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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