A Short History of the Tablet Computer

The tablet computing product

Now that we’ve covered the tablet computing concept, it’s time to move on the meat of the matter: the first tablet computing product. While digital tablets and handwriting recognition had been in development for decades before it, including desktop computers which used them as the sole input method, the GRiDpad was the first, real, tangible tablet computer as we would recognise it – although it’s a little unclear as to what its specifications were. It was released in 1989; 12 years before the Windows XP tablets, and 4 years before the Newton.

The specifications (according to Steve Flynn at DigiBarn, who worked on the development of the device) for the device were rather impressive. It sported a 386SL 20MHz processor assisted by a 80387SX coprocessor, with 20MB RAM and a 40, 60, 80 or 120MB hard drive (Update: another set of specs sounds more realistic: 2MB of RAM). It weighed 2.26kg, and measured in at 29.2×23.6×3.76cm, which was incredibly light and compact for the time. It had a 10″ backlit VGA display with 32 grayscales, PCMCIA slot, built-in fax/modem, floppy drive port, and a standard keyboard port. Its NiCad battery could power the device for 3 hours.

Even though the operating system on the GRiDpad was MS-DOS, it had its own software solutions built on top to take advantage of the stylus input system, written in GRiDtask, a high-level programming language specifically developed by Jeff Hawkins for GRiD. “It was what would today be called a ‘RAD,’ or Rapid Application Development language,” said Geoff Walker, who worked at GRiD at the time, “Jeff’s GRiDTask language was an essential element of this in that it allowed us to create simple applications very quickly.”

Interestingly, Pen Computing Magazine recalls a different set of specifications, which are slightly less impressive, stating it had a 10MHz 80C86, a CGA (640×400) display, and used 256 or 512KB battery-backed RAM cards as storage. Both are valuable sources, so either the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or they made different models. It could also be that the model described by Pen Computing Magazine was a prototype of some sorts.

In any case, it was brought to market, making it the first actual tablet computer. It wasn’t Apple, it wasn’t Microsoft – no, it was GRiD Systems, bought by Tandy only two years earlier. Jeff Hawkins, father of the GRiDpad, went even further, and in mid-1990 he pitched an idea to GRiD’s top management that was deemed too risky. Hawkins left GRiD with a license to use the software they had developed, and in 1992 he founded Palm. Imperare sibi maximum imperium est.

After GRiD, GO Computing was the next company to unveil its take on the tablet by introducing the PenPoint operating system in 1991 (it didn’t actually ship until 1992). The PenPoint operating system was designed from the ground-up for pen-based input, used a set of standard gestures all throughout the operating system and its applications, and introduced the notebook GUI metaphor.

PenPoint shipped on a number of devices, such as the EO Communicator, the ThinkPad 700T, the NCR 3125, and several systems by GRiD. Many of these tablets could dual-boot between PenPoint and PenWindows. Windows? As in Microsoft?

Yes, as in Microsoft. Soon after Microsoft heard of GO and PenPoint (GO had been a media darling ever since it was founded in 1987), the company developed Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 (or PenWindows for short) as an add-on for Windows 3.x, later followed by version 2.0 for Windows 95. PenWindows evolved into Windows XP Tablet Edition in the early 2000s. In any case, PenWindows actually pre-dates the Newton, so you could say that if the world revolved around Apple and Microsoft (as many seem to believe these days), Microsoft was first.

GO Corporation wasn’t particularly happy about PenWindows, and in 2005, GO’s founder sued Microsoft (more here) for stealing technology that had been shown to them under a non-disclosure agreement. In addition, it was claimed that Microsoft used “incentives and threats” to force several manufacturers to not use PenPoint. Oh how delightfully surprising.

Asking questions

As you can see, the history of tablet computing dates much further back in time than whatever Paul Thurrot and John Gruber seem to think. I can hardly blame them, though – they are both enthusiastic supporters of their respective companies of choice, and as such, they focus on the products put forth by these companies. Still, I would expect a bit more historical sense from these famous bloggers.

The fact of the matter is that it was Apple nor Microsoft who was at the forefront of tablet computing innovation. Much of the conceptual work was done decades earlier, and the first actual tablet computing products were developed and introduced years before the Newton and PenWindows were even twinkles in the eyes of Cupertino and Redmond.

This is not very surprising. Contrary to what fancy gadget blogs and forum commenters want to believe, neither Apple nor Microsoft are very innovative companies. Both of them are businesses, which means they take other people’s ideas, assemble them, and turn them into something that can sit on a shelf and earn money. That’s called business sense, and it’s a very, very valuable skill – but it’s not innovation.

Innovation is when people come up with new ideas for the first time, which is incredibly hard. Only a lucky few can truly call themselves “innovators”. Some innovators take it all a step further, and come up with innovative solutions for problems that pop up only decades later. These people not only think of the answer – but also the question. They are the visionaries.

Microsoft and Apple don’t ask questions; they merely answer them.


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