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

eWEEK 30: While it may seem to many that Apple's iPad defined tablets as a successful computer form factor, tablets are actually the product of more than 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.

John Pallatto

John Pallatto

John Pallatto has been editor in chief of QuinStreet Inc.'s eWEEK.com since October 2012. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional journalist working at a daily newspaper and...