A Short History of the Tablet Computer

Thurrot made his remarks in a short post on his blog right before CES, when it was revealed that Steve Ballmer would debut a new tablet computer made by HP. “I can now reveal that Microsoft and its PC maker partners will announce and then deliver their own Tablet PC well before Apple. And I have an exclusive photo of a prototype of this unbelievable, trend-setting, and innovative product,” Thurrot wrote, “From 2001. The devices shipped in 2002. Almost eight years ago.”

Yesterday, John Gruber argued that if you really want to dive into who was the first with the tablet computer, the credit should go to Apple. “Even if you’re only concerned about who was first, shouldn’t that credit go to Apple, for the Newton MessagePad that first shipped in 1993?” Gruber wonders in his piece called “The Original Tablet“.

Well, no. They’re both wrong. Both Microsoft and Apple were late to the game when it comes to tablet computing, and so far, neither of the two companies have been able to popularise the paradigm in any meaningful way – but boy, did they try. Later this month, Apple could unveil a tablet that will finally jumpstart this so far insignificant market, but up until then, their best attempt is an admittedly cool device that was far ahead of its time – but failed, nonetheless.

The tablet computing concept

If you want to dive into the history of the tablet computing paradigm, you must first separate the concept from the product. It’s not uncommon in the world of computing (or any field, for that matter) for concepts to be much older than the first actual product, but in the case of the tablet it’s all rather obvious.

The first complete concept of a tablet computer was the DynaBook, conceptualised by Alan Kay in the late 1960s and early 1970s in his article “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages” (much more information about the DynaBook here). The DynaBook was not just a tablet form-factor computer long before even the laptop appeared on the scene – Kay also described several ideas that would become commonplace only decades later.

The DynaBook was to be a tablet-style computer aimed at learning and gathering information. Kay envisioned that DynaBooks could connect wirelessly to centralised information storages, and could “abstract” information from those storages. It was about the size of a notepad, with a hardware keyboard at the bottom, and a screen at the top (using “liquid crystal”, a brand-new technology back then). It could also play audio files, record voice memos, and much, much more.

So far, it sounds like a tablet, but you are all wondering where the stylus comes in. Apart from printing the word “stylus” in one the illustrations, there’s no further mention of it in the article. In fact Kay takes it all a few steps further: he basically describes a multitouch display. In 1972. That’s almost 40 years ago.

Suppose the display panel covers the full extent of the notebook surface. Any keyboard arrangement one might wish can then be displayed anywhere on the surface. Four strain gauges mounted under the corners of the panel will register the position of any touch to within 3/16″ which is close enough. The bottom portion of the display panel can be textured in various ways to permit touch typing. This arrangement allows the font in which one is typing to be shown on the keys, special characters can be windowed, and user identifiers can be selected with one touch.

The DynaBook is the first tablet computer concept, but it is so much more. The ideas underlying the software of the DynaBook are based on then-new insights from psychology on how children learn and develop, from articles written by people like Omar K. Moore, Seymour Papert, and Jean Piaget.

“A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages” should be required reading material for anyone interested in computing. We often claim that people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are visionaries, but they don’t hold a candle to the likes of Alan Kay and Douglas Engelbart. These last two are people who thought up concepts and ideas that would only become possible and widespread decades after, whereas Jobs and Gates are businessmen, who take existing ideas and come up with ways to trick us into buying those technologies. Having good business sense is admirable – but it hardly makes you a visionary.

The DynaBook most likely wasn’t the only tablet computer concept, but it is one of the most well-known. As a side note, the different components of tablet computing had been in development since long before the DynaBook; stylus input specifically has origins dating back to 1888 (!).

By the way, look at this gem from Kay’s DynaBook article about storing books on the DynaBook bought from vending machines: “The ability to make copies easily and to “own” one’s information will probably not debilitate existing markets, just as easy xerography has enhanced publishing (rather than hurting it as some predicted), and as tapes have not damaged the LP record business but have provided a way to organise one’s own music.”


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