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

Apple's anticipated press event later this month is widely expected to debut a new tabled-sized device as a sibling to the company's Mac, iPod and iPhone product lines. Here's what has led up to the launch, and why the futuristic tablet hasn't taken off so far.

This article features the evolution of the hardware side of tablets. The software side of tablet products and technology related to multitouch interfaces is profiled in the article Inside the multitouch FingerWorks tech in Apple's tablet .

The new "iSlate" or perhaps "iBook" product that observers hope to see from Apple is thought to include a new graphical interface based on the multitouch foundation of the iPhone, and is anticipated to physically fit between the pocket-sized form factor of the iPhone and iPod touch and the 13-inch notebooks of Apple's Mac lineup.

A variety of vendors have tried to deliver tablet-like products over the past two decades, but none have been a standout success. This has the tech world watching with bated breath to see if Apple can apply its aura of desirability to the tablet segment in the same way that it has managed to do in desktops, notebooks, MP3 players and smartphones.

Looking at the history of tablet products of the past provides some clues as to why they haven't taken off yet, and what new potential they might have this year, given the new advances in hardware technology and the platform advancements that have stoked a software market capable of supporting users' interest in such a device.

Early tablet ideas: 1968 - 1982

The concept of handheld computing got started in the late 60s, when Alan Kay met with other graduate students to demonstrate his FLEX Machine system. At the event, Kay saw the first working flat panel display, which led to the idea that at some point the technology would exist to embed a personal computer (already a novel idea) into a flat panel display to deliver a very personal mobile device.

Kay's idea mingled with his interest in promoting computers as a tool in primary education, resulting in the "Dynabook" as a product vision that would enable not just dynamic books, but also fuel changes in how individuals related to computers. Kay originally envisioned a two pound device with a keyboard and a megapixel display.

Kay brought his ideas to Xerox PARC in 1970, where they morphed into the desktop Alto prototype system that Kay called an "interim Dynabook." The Xerox Alto dramatically advanced the state of the art in computing by fusing a variety of brilliant ideas, including Douglas Engelbart's pioneering concepts related to mouse-based graphical computing. The advanced research at Xerox greatly influenced Apple's Lisa and Macintosh projects, which brought intuitive desktop computing ideas from the lab to mainstream users.

Tablets wait through the age of notebooks : 1982 - 1991

The goal of taking the technology demonstrated by the Alto and shrinking it into a Dynabook-sized tablet remained a futuristic vision throughout the 80s. Various PC companies brought new portable personal computer designs to market, starting with suitcase-sized luggables which required an AC plugin, and progressing to battery powered handheld systems and increasingly thin and portable notebooks; these were all largely text-oriented DOS computers. The closest thing to a tablet that the available technology allowed were handheld systems dominated by a full keyboard, with a small LCD readout suppling a few lines of text.

GRiD, founded in 1979 by Xerox executive John Ellenby and Dave Paulsen of Apple, introduced its Compass as the first commercial notebook computer in 1982 with a hinged, 320x200 display that folded shut over the keyboard. It cost $8,150, or about $17,900 in today's money. GRiD's portable computing product attracted the attention of national security and intelligence groups in government as well as corporate executives; NASA regularly took the portable Compass into space.

Apple didn't bring its graphical Mac Portable to market until 1989. By that time, DOS PC notebook vendors had delivered an impressive array of models designed primarily for text-based computing (Toshiba even branded its PC notebooks as "Dynabook" in homage to Kay's original ideas), and a couple companies (including Outbound) even launched portable systems that ran the graphical Macintosh operating system using ROM chips from retired Apple computers.

The conventional notebook design won out over tablet-sized systems in popularity, simply because the notebook provided the most ideal combination of portability, computing power and screen real estate. Apple's first foray into mobile computing with the Mac Portable was taxed by its need to pack significant processing power and a high quality 640x400 display suitable for supporting its graphical computing environment. However, by 1991 Apple had teamed up with Sony to shrink its mobile Mac into a thin notebook form factor called the PowerBook. The new model shifted the keyboard back toward the hinge, making room for a palm rest equipped with a trackball for navigating around windows on the screen, a convention followed by nearly all notebook makers since.

Over the next decade, Apple maintained a leading position among top notebook makers, but eventually began to fall behind the curve as the company's outlook grew questionable. At the same time, Apple began working on an even more portable device to be sold as a companion device for desktop and notebook users: the Newton Message Pad.

On page 2 of 3: A new wave of tablets, Apple's Newton.