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Friday, January 15, 2010, 04:45 am PT (07:45 am ET)

The inside track on Apple's tablet: a history of tablet computing


The rise of mobile devices: 2001 - 2009

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates initially hoped to shift the remaining interest in mobile devices to a new category of modified laptops with stylus input. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant called the new product the Tablet PC, which Gates introduced in 2001 along with the prediction that everyone would be using Tablet PCs as their primary computer within just a few years. Tablet PC was a lot like Windows for Pen from the previous decade: a reference design that allowed hardware partners to create tablet devices without really trying, simply by bundling Microsoft's operating system. It did not fare much better.

Apple introduced a much more narrowly focused mobile product later that same year: iPod. Meanwhile, Hawkins had left Palm to develop Handspring as a PDA maker with more creative flexibility. Handspring happened upon pairing the PDA with a cellular phone module to create a new generation of smartphone. That caught the attention of Palm, which acquired Handspring and refocused itself from making PDAs toward the new Treo smartphone that Hawkins' group had developed.

Palm's smartphones were rivaled by Nokia's Symbian devices (which had similarly grown from PDA roots), the new BlackBerry smartphones from RIM (which had evolved from that company's pager business), and Microsoft's new Windows Mobile initiative, which had similarly hoped to salvage the company's investments in making PDA devices and apply them toward the vast new potential in smartphones. After a brief period of leadership, Palm lost control of the smartphone market that it had helped to create, and eventually resorted to licensing Microsoft's Windows Mobile in 2006.

During the same decade, Microsoft also hoped to leverage its Windows CE PDA operating system under the Windows Media brand to take on Apple's blockbuster success with the iPod. Windows Media fared poorly against the iPod, adding failure on top of the Tablet PC initiatives that churned out generation after generation of tablet devices that never gained any significant traction in the market.

Apple continued advancing the iPod and iTunes until 2007, when it debuted the iPhone as its own concept for a smartphone. That year, Microsoft grew increasingly concerned as it realized that Apple's iPhone would leverage the success of the iPod to potentially rival its own Windows Mobile smartphone platform, which had been flickering hints of future promise among an otherwise dark outlook for its mobile and consumer offerings.

Before Apple introduced the iPhone, the threat of a successful mobile operating system controlled by Microsoft was enough to compel Google to enter the smartphone business in a defensive effort to keep the market open for mobile ads and paid search results. Google purchased Android in 2003 and continued work on the effort to rival Microsoft until debuting it in 2007 in the wake of the iPhone.

Over the first three generations of the iPhone, Apple broadened the new platform into a new iPod touch model and built a solid array of third party developers around its new smartphone platform. Engineers who were worked to the bone within Apple left to help design a new device at Palm. That company's original Palm OS had failed along with its strategy to license Windows Mobile; both were scuttled once the company's new WebOS was introduced in 2009 running on the Palm Pre.

Google's Android efforts have helped kill off Microsoft's intended market for a paid mobile operating system, much as the cheap Palm Pilot had helped prevent Apple's Newton from going anywhere. In smartphones, Nokia's shrinking plurality of market share is being rivaled by Apple's iPhone, RIM's BlackBerry family, Google's Android platform, and to a smaller extent, Palm's WebOS, the remains of Windows Mobile, and some new entries into the arena including Samsung's Bada platform and HTC's new BREW devices.

That intense competition is widely expected to whittle the array of platforms down to a few winners, at least according to most pundits. It may also be that a healthy number of rival operating systems can coexist while posing little problem for consumers, given how little mobile software costs. Among PCs in the 80s and 90s, compatibility with third party software titles (and the operating system they depended upon) was a much bigger issue for users. Today, there does not seem to be many significant barriers stopping consumers from trying a new smartphone platform. Many people carry both a BlackBerry and an iPhone, for example, or have moved from Windows Mobile or the Palm OS to a modern smartphone without worrying about losing their software investments in the prior platform.



Return of the tablet: 2010

After three blockbuster iPhone launches, each followed by a successful iPod touch introduction, observers naturally began to wonder how Apple would expand its new mobile device franchise. Over the previous decade, Apple engineers built a series of prototype devices that were all rejected, ranging from mini notebooks to a tablet Web browser (which ended up being incorporated as the Mobile Safari app used in the iPhone). Steve Jobs even noted that one of the things he was most proud of was resisting the desire to launch a new tablet device without first putting into place the ecosystem needed to sustain it.

Launching a tablet product, even with impressive hardware features, is almost certainly doomed to failure unless it is delivered with a ready audience willing to support it. A major problem for the Newton was that Apple simply threw the product at the market as a toy with incredible potential. It didn't do enough out of the box to warrant buying one. That left zero potential for ever building a critical mass needed to attract the very third party development that was needed to make it worthy of buying.

A similar problem plagued the Zoomer and the EO. On the other hand, the Palm Pilot was practical and useful even without ever installing apps, which both contributed to its user base and helped pique the interest of developers. Microsoft's Tablet PC wasn't a very practical product without third party software, which certainly worked against its popularity. And, of course, the iPhone also shipped fully functional; for its first year it stood on its own merits without even having an official mechanism for installing additional software.

Conversely, hype alone hasn't yet stoked blockbuster interest in either the WebOS-based Palm Pre or in Google's Android phones, leaving their third party software options limited and subsequently suppressing the financial reasons for developers to get involved in changing that situation. Google's official plan is to simply push out enough Android phones to reach critical mass, but no model has yet delivered sales worth bragging about, and nearly every new introduction adds hardware features that make it more difficult for developers to deploy software that works seamlessly across all Android devices.

At and around this year's CES, a variety of manufacturers debuted hardware tablet devices with unclear primary functions and limited utility out of the box. Apple's expected tablet won't have that problem because the company already has the attention of developers in iPhone and iPod touch development, and is reportedly working with its software partners to adapt their existing mobile applications to the new tablet's screen and user interface.

If successful in launching its new tablet design, Apple will also be insulated from imitation, as its software infrastructure is closely tied to its own software platform and can't realistically be adapted to support hardware clones (just as no other smartphones can run iPhone apps). And given that Apple will be marketing its tablet to iTunes, Mac, iPhone, and iPod touch users, the company's competitors will all need to set up their own iTunes-equivalent or work out from scratch how to sync their new device with users' PCs and smartphones.

That's a daunting task that has stymied Palm's WebOS and similarly forces Android users to rely on cloud sync. It's a tall order even for major manufacturers like Sony, which was completely flummoxed when trying to compete against the much simpler iPod. How will vendors respond to Apple's tablet announcement? The remains of 2010 should offer an exciting look at whether tablet devices have the potential to become an important product among consumer electronics, and what companies will benefit from any growth that occurs.