Apple iPad, Android Just the Latest in Tablet PCs' Long History

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2011-04-25

Apple iPad, Android Just the Latest in Tablet PCs' Long History

The Apple iPad whetted consumer appetite for tablet PCs, not to mention its rivals' interest in creating touch-screens of their very own. Advertisements for every new seven- or ten-inch device insist on talking up revolutionary or "magical" hardware or software, spinning the impression that these devices represent the bleeding edge of technology; that nothing quite so amazing has ever been seen on this planet, much less made available for a hefty percentage of one's paycheck.

But all technology evolves from sometimes cruder predecessors, and tablets are no different. People have been playing with some of the technologies underlying tablet PCs for over a century: In July 1888, for example, inventor Elisha Gray received a U.S. patent for an electrical stylus device that captured handwriting. According to his original application, this "telautograph" leveraged telegraph technology to send a handwritten message between a sending and receiving station.

Tablet research necessarily accelerated after World War II, in conjunction with advances in computing. Research into electronic text and handwriting recognition contributed to the RAND Corporation's RAND tablet, produced in 1964.

"The RAND tablet is believed to be the first such graphic device that is digital [and] is relatively low-cost," read an internal research memo on the project. "The development of the tablet at RAND has been pursued as a part of research performed for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and is an aspect of a larger interest in the area of man-made communication and interaction." As originally built, prime tasks for the RAND tablet included digitizing map information and "the study of more esoteric applications of graphical languages for man-machine interaction." It allowed for writing in "a natural manner" using a stylus, and measured 10 inches by 10 inches.  

Not exactly a device intended to play Angry Birds, in other words.

Around this time, however, science fiction began playing with the concept of tablet computers in earnest. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronauts headed to Jupiter watch video on a tablet device.

The 1980s and 90s


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.   

The Most Popular form of PC Sold in America


'The Most Popular Form of PC Sold in America'

Speaking at Comdex in November, 2001, Microsoft's Bill Gates demonstrated prototypes of a tablet PC, predicting the form-factor would become immensely popular within five years. The size of a legal pad, the device ran Windows XP and included applications such as Autodesk's CAD software and Groove's collaboration platform.  

"The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyone's office," he told the audience. "The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It's a PC that is virtually without limits-and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

Microsoft upgraded its stylus-based input software with Windows XP Tablet PC edition, originally released in 2002, with a service-pack upgrade in 2005. Despite Gates' prediction, however, tablet PCs remained largely a tool of niche industries, such as healthcare, stubbornly refusing to break into the mainstream.

Other companies, however, were thinking about how to make tablet PCs a mass-consumer item.

"I had this idea about having a glass display, a multitouch display," Apple's CEO told The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg during the D8 Conference in June 2010. "I asked our people about it. And six months later, they came back with this amazing display...and I thought, -My god, we can build a phone with this."

That process eventually led to the iPhone, which Apple released in the summer of 2007. When the smartphone proved a success (followed later by the iPod Touch, essentially the iPhone without a 3G connection), the company undertook developing a full-fledged tablet. The stylus was abandoned in favor of your finger.  

Apple released the iPad in April 2010. By the time Jobs spoke at the D8 Conference, the 9.7-inch tablet had sold some 2 million units, and in the process igniting a mad scramble among Apple's rivals to produce a competing device. Within months, Research In Motion had announced it would produce a BlackBerry-themed tablet, the PlayBook, based on a proprietary QNX operating system. Samsung, meanwhile, produced the 7-inch Galaxy Tab, running the Google Android operating system.

During a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, 2010, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer presented a tablet built by Hewlett-Packard. "Almost as portable as a phone, but powerful as a PC running Windows 7," he said. "The emerging category of PCs should take advantage of the touch and portability capabilities."

The tablet PC in his hands, he added, would have the ability to surf the Web, display e-books, and play multimedia content. As 2010 wore on, though, HP's $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm, and its webOS operating system for portable devices, may have complicated Microsoft's tablet plans; when finally released near the end of the year, the Windows 7-equipped HP Slate 500 was aimed at the enterprise and, rumor had it, was produced only in limited quantities. At the same time, further talk suggested that HP's attentions had focused on porting webOS onto tablets.

In public appearances, Ballmer seemed to refocus much of his tablet talk on the future of the form-factor, in lieu of discussing any specific devices. He also defended the stylus as an input method for touch screens, despite the industry's growing focus on gesture control and virtual keyboards.

"Do we think people want to take notes and draw? What's the best way to do that? Well, there are different ways to do that and we'll support them all," Ballmer told the audience at the same D8 Conference at which Jobs detailed Apple's touch-screen history. "Today, we offer devices that do use a stylus. I certainly believe that people do want to take the things that they do today with pencil and paper and do them with new technologies."

Near the end of 2010, rumors circulated that Microsoft would announce a major tablet push at January's Consumer Electronics Show. Instead, Microsoft used the event to announce that the next version of Windows would support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. In turn, that would give Microsoft increased leverage for porting Windows onto tablets and more mobile form-factors, currently the prime market for ARM offerings.

The War


The War

As with smartphones, Google soon became the operating-system supplier of choice for manufacturers looking to break into the tablet game. There was just one tiny issue: Android had originally been developed for smartphones and their necessarily smaller screens, necessitating the creation of a tablet-optimized operating system. Enter Android 3.0, code-named "Honeycomb," which first appeared in early 2011 on the Motorola Xoom tablet.

Around the same time, Samsung, LG Electronics and other companies revealed that their latest tablets would run Honeycomb. Meanwhile, HP announced it would port the webOS operating system onto not only mobile devices, but to PCs, as well.

"The webOS is an unbelievably attractive piece of technology, in that it can interconnect seamlessly a number of various devices," HP CEO Leo Apotheker told reporters during a March 14 press conference. "We see this as a massive, very global platform."

In March 2011, Apple released the iPad 2, hoping to continue its dominance of the tablet market in the face of these rising competitors. Customer response suggested the general public's appetite for tablets hadn't slowed in the past year. That consumer interest bled over into the business sphere, with IT administrators reporting more and more employees interested in integrating tablets into their daily workflow.  

But while Microsoft had collaborated with manufacturers to produce a handful of tablets running Windows 7-which supports gesture control-it refrained from pushing hard into the consumer-tablet market. Current rumors suggest the company will finally make its presence felt in the segment with the release of a tablet-optimized "Windows 8," perhaps due in 2012.

The future remains unclear, although analysts generally assume that Apple's early advantage will allow it to hold a significant portion of the tablet market for years to come. According to a recent Gartner report, Apple's iOS will continue to dominate the media-tablet market through 2015, with a 47.1 percent share. Hard on its heels will be Android, with 38.6 percent, followed by Research In Motion's QNX operating system with 10 percent. Hewlett-Packard's webOS will trail with 3 percent, followed by MeeGo with 1 percent and "other operating systems" with 0.2 percent.

If the tablet PC's past few decades are any indication, though, anything can happen.

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