eWEEK at 30: Tablet Sales Surge After 20 Years of Development

By John Pallatto  |  Posted 2014-02-27

eWEEK at 30: Tablet Sales Surge After 20 Years of Development

The phenomenal success of tablet computers since the introduction of the Apple iPad in April 2010 gives the impression that these computers burst suddenly on the market well into the new century as fully mature products ready to challenge long-established notebook, laptop and desktop models.

But the truth is that today's hot-selling iPads, Amazon Kindles, Samsung Galaxy Tabs and others are the result of product development and experimentation by many device makers that date back more than 20 years, well before Internet and wireless connectivity became as ubiquitous as they are now.

Companies as diverse as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq had a role in developing the tablet concept. While these early devices seem impossibly large and heavy compared with today's pencil-thin and light designs, they gave users an idea of how tablets could be used effectively for business and personal computing.

Pen computing was the technology that inspired the development of the early tablet computers. Those machines were equipped with touch screens and handwriting recognition software that allowed users to use a stylus to enter data. While the first models weren't small and light enough to hold in one hand while entering data with the other, they did provide a level of portability that was a departure from the bulkier laptops of the day.

One of the first commercial tablets to reach the market was the EO personal communicator that Eo Inc. released in 1993. It was based on the PenPoint operating system developed by Go Corp. The OS allowed people to draw objects and write text on the screen as if they were using a paper notebook. The handwriting recognition software was fairly effective if the user wrote slowly and clearly with fairly large lettering.

However, the EO's biggest problem was that it was quickly overshadowed by the introduction of the Apple Newton MessagePad in August of the same year, which got all of the attention of product reviewers and customers. AT&T reintroduced the device as the EO Communicator in April 1993 after acquiring a majority interest in Eo the company. But the tablet was not a success, and Eo had shut down operations by the end of July 1994.

The Newton featured an ARM 619 RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processor and handwriting recognition software that was innovative, even if it wasn't particularly accurate.

The handwriting recognition software became the Siri of its day, and people love to talk about its foibles and funny malaprops. The main problem was it wasn't especially forgiving for users who wrote too fast or with sloppy handwriting. Even hand printing could be a challenge. But it worked reasonably well, and plenty of people were willing to buy this Apple product to at least try it out.

The Newton included a Notes application that let users create documents by typing in text, handwriting or adding freehand sketches.

Apple's CEO at the time, John Sculley, got credit for dubbing the Newton a "personal digital assistant" rather than a tablet. Although it lacked wireless or Web connectivity until Apple added the Newton Internet Enabler application, it certainly looked like a rather thick and bulky tablet. And it paved the way for some of the smaller and handier PDAs that came later, such as the Palm Pilot from U.S. Robotics, that were about the same size and today's smartphones.

The problem was the Newton remained more of a curiosity than a wildly successful product. It would never generate sufficient sales to sustain Apple in the mid-'90s, a time when the company was struggling to remain profitable in a highly competitive computer market in the days before founder Steve Jobs returned to turn around the company's fortunes.

Apple discontinued the Newton product line in February 1998 as it geared up to introduce new products starting with the first iMac and culminating in hugely successful products including Mac OS X, the iPod and the iPhone.

But some of the Newton technology found its way into other Apple products. For example, the "Print Recognizer" technology from the handwriting recognition software was built into Mac OS X 2.1 Jaguar.

Apple's experiment with the Newton encouraged a number of other computer manufacturers to experiment with tabletlike computers. No less a force in the computer industry than IBM tried its hand by introducing a tablet as an early entry in its renowned ThinkPad product line.

It's a little known fact that the first IBM ThinkPad was actually a tablet.


eWEEK at 30: Tablet Sales Surge After 20 years of Development

But that is how IBM actually started to develop the ThinkPad product line as early as 1990, according to Howard Delaney, a former IBM and now a Lenovo marketing executive, who related the tablet's early history in a Lenovo video posted on YouTube. Delaney was part of the team that developed the early ThinkPad product line.

The ThinkPad name was inspired, according to Delaney, by the paper note pads that could be found throughout IBM corporate offices emblazoned with the long-standing corporate motto "Think!"

The Model 2521 ThinkPad tablet debuted in April 1992, six months before the first laptop models, the 700 and the 700C, in October 1992 along with a production-model tablet, the 700T.

The Model 2521 was more of a demonstration model, but it ran the Go PenPoint operating system that supported the use of a stylus for data entry and handwriting recognition. It was succeeded by the 700T tablet, which also ran the PenPoint operating system and, according to Delaney, was among the first computers to use a lightweight magnesium case and a flash solid-state storage drive instead of a disk drive.

Compaq Computer introduced a hybrid tablet model, the TC1000, in 2002, just before the company was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. The TC1000 had a keyboard and could be used as a typical laptop. But the tablet screen was fully detachable from the keyboard, a feature that was fairly rare at the time.

Although HP continued to sell the TC1000 after the Compaq acquisition, some buyers of this model were disappointed with its performance. So HP followed up with the TC1100, which was the same basic design but included a faster Intel Celeron or an Intel Pentium M CPU.

HP continued to develop tablet models to meet demand from corporate clients who wanted tablets for specialized applications such as data entry by field service workers or for sales applications. But since the success of the iPad generated strong demands as a mobile computer for both consumers and business applications, HP offers a range of tablets that run either Microsoft Windows or Android.

Another factor that added impetus to the adoption of tablets was the introduction of ebook readers from Amazon.com and the Barnes & Noble book store chain within two years before the Apple iPad reached the market. Amazon developed the Kindle as a tool to build the market for digital books and magazines as well as a new way to access its enormous online retail site.

Amazon released the first Kindle in early November 2007 to take advantage of the Christmas holiday shopping season. But Amazon clearly underestimated the initial demand because the 8-by-5.3-inch tablet sold out within hours of its introduction and remained out of stock until late April 2008.

The company didn't make that mistake again as it has sold millions of later models, including the Kindle 2, Kindle DX, Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD and Fire HDX. Investment bank Morgan Stanley has projected that Amazon will sell $5 billion in Kindle products in 2014.

The Kindle product line has certainly allowed Amazon to rapidly expand digital book sales. Amazon announced that by late 2010 digital sales had overtaken the sale of paperback books for the first time.

Barnes & Noble introduced its Nook e-reader in October 2009 with a 6-inch display and both WiFi and 3G wireless connectivity through AT&T. While the Nook helped Barnes & Noble expand ebook sales, the bookseller had to worry about ebooks cannibalizing sales at its brick-and-mortar stores.

The retailer has tried to counter this problem by allowing Nook users to read any title from Barnes & Noble's Nook Store for one hour when they visit a B&N store to connect to the in-store WiFi.

While the Nook hasn't sold as heavily as the Amazon Kindle, it has established itself as a popular tablet and e-reader.

So by the time Apple's iPad hit the market in April 2010, tablets and e-readers were already well-defined computer form factors that were strongly established in the market. But the iPad took tablet sales to a new level and encouraged more computer makers than ever to get into the market with their own models.

The iPad and the products that came before it have succeeded in establishing tablets as a viable alternative to laptops to the point of significantly cutting into PC sales. While tablets are rarely the only computer an individual will own, they are well-established as light, highly mobile computers that keep people productive and connected to the Internet wherever they go.


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