A Bitter Pill or a Better Tablet?

A historical perspective on tablet computers

21 October 2011

The following article originally ran in the spring 2011 issue of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society Newsletter, which is edited by Peter Corcoran.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show attendees were surrounded by tablet computers. Following Apple iPad’s success, it seems that everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon. But are tablet computers really the next big thing for consumer electronics device manufacturers or is this just a huge midlife crisis for the computer industry?

Remember that a few years ago the “next big thing” was personal digital assistants, followed by ultramobile PCs, which evolved into netbooks. So even just tracing things back a handful of years we can see a pattern emerging. But guess what—there isn’t really anything new about the underlying concepts of the tablet PC. If we take a historical perspective, we’ll see that the concepts and underlying technologies have been around for a lot longer than you might think. So is Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s success simply one of clever presentation, access to a content network (iTunes) and marketing of the iPad, or did Apple really build a better tablet computer?

To better understand the iPad’s success, let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore the origins of the various technologies that led to this year’s tablet computing revolution (re-evolution?).

The first decade of the new millennium saw a number of interesting milestones for tablet computing.

The decade began with Bill Gates of Microsoft demonstrating the first public prototype of a Windows-based tablet PC. Bill and Microsoft defined it as a “pen-enabled” computer conforming to hardware specifications devised by Microsoft and running a licensed copy of the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system at Comdex.

In 2002, original-equipment manufacturers released the first tablet PCs designed to the Microsoft specification. The tablet PC version of Microsoft Windows superseded Microsoft’s earlier pen-computing operating environment, Windows for Pen Computing 2.0.

Other highlights of the 2000s included:


  • PaceBlade receives the Innovation des Jahres 2002/2003 award for the PaceBook tablet PC from PC Professionell magazine at the Cebit trade show.
  • Fingerworks develops the touch technology later used in the Apple iPhone.


  • Samsung introduces the Q1 UMPC.
  • Windows Vista is released for general availability. Vista included the functionality of the tablet PC edition of Windows XP.


  • Axiotron introduces Modbook, the first and only tablet computer based on Mac hardware and Mac OS X at Macworld.


  • In April, as part of a larger federal court case, the gesture features of the Windows/tablet PC operating system and hardware were found to infringe on a patent by GO Corp. concerning user interfaces for pen-computer operating systems. Microsoft’s acquisition of the technology is the subject of a separate lawsuit.
  • HP releases the second multitouch-capable tablet: the HP TouchSmart tx2.


  • Asus announces a tablet netbook, the EEE PC T91 and T91MT, the latter featuring a multitouch screen.
  • Always Innovating announces a tablet netbook with an ARM CPU.
  • Motion Computing launches the J3400.

Looking further back we see that tablets and other forms of ultramobile and pen computing have been obsessions of the computer industry for decades. During the last three decades there has been a wide variety of innovative devices constrained by the design trade-offs among operating systems, application functionality, and limited battery life. None of the early devices was commercially successful. Consumers and even technophiles were simply not ready to adopt them on any wide scale.

Let’s start with Aqcess Technologies’s Qbe personal computing tablet, a full-featured Intel 400MHz Celeron-based wireless device that won the Best Mobile and Handheld System Award at the 1999 Comdex trade show. The device was perhaps the first modern tablet.

Many other devices appeared earlier in the 1990s, however. The IBM Simon Personal Communicator was an advanced cellular telephone for its time, created by a joint venture between IBM and BellSouth. Simon was first shown as a product concept in 1992 at Comdex. Launched in 1993, it combined the features of a mobile phone, a pager, a PDA, and a fax machine. After some delays, it was sold in 1994 by BellSouth in 190 U.S. cities, priced at US $899. Besides the phone, the major applications were a calendar, an address book, a world clock, a calculator, a note pad, e-mail, and games. Instead of dialing a phone number with buttons, customers used a touch-screen.

The EO was an early commercial tablet computer created by GO/EO, later acquired by AT&T and released in April 1993. Eo (Latin for “go”) was the hardware spin-out of GO Corp. Officially named the AT&T EO Personal Communicator, it was similar to a large PDA, with wireless communications, and it competed against the Apple Newton. Two models, the Communicator 440 and 880, were produced. Each was about the size of a small clipboard and was powered by the AT&T Hobbit chip, created by AT&T specifically for running code from the C programming language. They also contained a host of I/O ports—modem, parallel, serial, VGA out, and SCSI. The device came with a wireless cellular network modem, a built-in microphone with speaker, and a free subscription to AT&T EasyLink for both fax and e-mail messages.

Perhaps the most interesting part was the operating system, the PenPoint OS, created by GO Corp. Widely praised for its ease of use, the OS nevertheless did not become popular. Equally compelling was the tightly integrated applications suite, Perspective, licensed to EO by Pensoft.

The first release of pen/tablet oriented operating systems also happened in the early 1990s. The PenPoint OS was a product of GO Corp. and was one of the earliest operating systems written specifically for graphical tablets and personal digital assistants. It ran on AT&T’s EO as well as a number of Intel x86-powered tablet PCs, including IBM’s ThinkPad 700T series, NCR’s 3125 and 3130, and some of GRiD Systems’s pen-based portables.

Byte magazine named PenPoint the best operating system in 1992. PenPoint won in the standards and operating systems category in PC Magazine’s 1991 Technical Excellence awards.

The PenPoint operating system featured novel early implementations of several computing advances, including:

  • A large set of gestures such as circle to edit, X to delete, and caret to insert (the same gestures were used at all levels of the operating system and applications)
  • Press-and-hold for moving any selection—which showed the selection as a floating icon to be dropped into a destination
  • A rich notebook user interface metaphor (documents existed as pages in a notebook with tabs; this was not new in PenPoint, but PenPoint was the first to make it a primary OS interface; Microsoft later did it in Windows for Pen Computing)
  • A document architecture wherein each document was a directory nested in another document’s directory
  • Dynamic toolkit layout, which allowed applications to rescale for landscape and portrait orientation
  • A systemwide pluggable address book

Windows for Pen Computing was a software suite for Windows 3.1x, which Microsoft designed to incorporate pen-computing capabilities into the Windows operating environment. Windows for Pen Computing was the second major pen-computing platform for x86 tablet PCs; GO Corp. released its PenPoint OS shortly before Microsoft published Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 in 1991.

The software features of Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 included an on-screen keyboard, a notepad program for writing with the stylus, and a program for training the system to respond accurately to the user’s handwriting. Microsoft included Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 in the Windows SDK, and the operating environment was bundled with compatible devices.

For those interested in the story behind early Pen computing in the 1990s and the stormy relationship between GO/EO and Microsoft, I recommend the book Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure by Jerry Kaplan.

The Newton platform was an early PDA and the first tablet platform developed by Apple, the second platform being iOS, used in the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Development of the Newton platform started in 1987 and officially ended on 27 February 1998.

Newton was intended to be a complete reinvention of personal computing. For most of its design cycle, Newton had a large-format screen, more internal memory than earlier mobile computers, and an object-oriented graphics kernel. One of the original motivating uses for the design was known as the “architect scenario,” in which Newton’s designers imagined a residential architect working quickly with a client to sketch, clean up, and interactively modify a simple two-dimensional home plan.

The project missed its original goals to reinvent personal computing and to rewrite contemporary application programming. Eventually, the Newton project fell victim to project slippage, scope creep, and a growing fear that it would interfere with Macintosh sales. It was reinvented as a PDA platform, which would be a complementary peripheral instead of a stand-alone computer that might compete with the Macintosh.

Although PDAs had been developing since the original Psion Organiser in 1984, the Newton left one particular lasting impression: The term “personal digital assistant” was first coined to refer to it.

The Poqet PC was a small, portable IBM PC–compatible computer, introduced in 1989 by Poqet Computer Corp. with a price of $2000. The computer was discontinued after Fujitsu bought Poqet. It was the first subnotebook form factor IBM-PC-compatible computer that ran MS-DOS. The Poqet PC was powered by two AA-size batteries. Through the use of aggressive power management, which included stopping the CPU between keystrokes, the batteries were able to power the computer for up to a couple of months, depending on usage. The computer also had an “instant on” feature; after you powered it down, you could use it again immediately without having to go through a full booting sequence. Even today, the Poqet-series devices are versatile and useful.

Pencept was one of a small number of pioneering companies in the 1980s developing and marketing technology known as pen computing, prior to the entry of larger commercial efforts from Microsoft and GO Corp. The company was noted primarily for the robustness of the handwriting- and gesture-recognition algorithms. That was in contrast to the later approach by GO Corp. to develop a complete new operating system around the gesture-based UI.

Pencept employed a proprietary technology for on-line character recognition, based on a functional attribute model of human reading. Thus, unlike many other algorithms employed for handwriting recognition, Pencept’s was generally user-independent and did not involve training to a user’s particular writing style.

Early products included the PenPad 200 handwriting-only computer terminal, which replaced the VT-100 and other standard ANSI 3.62 terminals but with a digitizing tablet and electronic pen and no keyboard. With the advent of the IBM personal computer, later products such as the PenPad 320 focused particularly on graphics and CAD/CAM applications for DOS, as well as on data-entry and data-editing applications.

The Pencept systems were featured in demonstrations at the 1983 and 1985 CHI conferences. A video showing parts of the 1985 demonstration at the CHI 85 conference is available online.


There were tabletlike computers predating the devices from the 1980s. The most famous was the RAND tablet, described by the RAND Corp. as a “man-machine graphical communications device.”

From the abstract of its manual: “This memorandum describes a low-cost, two-dimensional graphic-input tablet and stylus developed at the RAND Corp. for conducting research on man-machine graphical communications. The tablet is a printed-circuit screen complete with printed-circuit capacitive-coupled encoders with only 40 external connections. The writing surface is a 10x10-inch area with a resolution of 100 lines per inch in both x and y directions. Thus it is capable of digitizing more than 106 discrete locations with excellent linearity, allowing the user to ‘write’ in a natural manner. The system does not require a computer-controlled scanning system to locate and track the stylus.”

Believe it or not, the concepts of touch-screen interfaces and pen computing go back before the 1950s.

In 1942, for example, H.C. Moodey was granted U.S. patent 2 269 599 for a teleautograph system. In the patent application, the inventor said, “My invention relates to improved means and systems whereby writing or tracing movements of a body such as a pen, pencil, or stylus in tracing a picture or design may be reproduced at a distance.” Moodey went on to describe what is essentially a resistive touchpad and means to transfer and display the recorded trace onto a cathode-ray tube.

As many of you are engineers, I’ve included a key diagram of Moodey’s invention below. I’m sure you’ll recognize the coil-based circuits to track the pen movements and see how the driver circuitry traces the movements on a CRT assembly.

read Image: US Patent Office Click for a larger image.

Earlier, H.E. Goldberg was granted U.S. Patent 1 117 184 on 28 December 1915 for a handwriting-recognition user interface using a stylus.

But the absolutely first instance of a remote pen-driven system can be traced back to U.S. Patent 386 815, granted on 31 July 1888 to Elisha Gray for an electrical stylus device for capturing handwriting. Gray said his invention “relates to a writing telegraph of that class in which the act of writing the message at the sending station operates to reproduce it at the receiving station.”

There are a number of intricate drawings in Gray’s detailed patent application—but the diagram that stands out for me is that of the writing stylus itself, shown below.

Gray Image: US Patent Office Click for a larger image.

So, what can we conclude from our foray into the past? Is the iPad simply a clever presentation and marketing of many older ideas and concepts that the computer industry had failed to properly capitalize on? Or is it really another great product breakthrough from Apple?

I lean toward the latter view. Somehow Steve Jobs and Apple brought together the essence and spirit of many earlier ideas and product concepts, but they succeeded in combining them into a piece of engineering that is more than the sum of its parts.

Let’s be honest: When you hold an iPad in your hands, you have to admit that it is a beautiful piece of engineering and industrial design. It also transcends a clever psychological barrier—people have grown to associate laptops and keyboards with work, and no one wants to bring their work into the living room!

But the iPad…well, that is a different story.

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