For many people, Apple‘s iPad is a magical device that appeared out of thin air. The iPad, however, is the culmination of decades of advancements in a variety of technologies. Come along as we take a look at some of the milestones in the evolution of the best selling tech gadget in history.
The iPad’s multi-touch screen is the descendant of a wide range of stylus-based input technologies, starting from early handwriting recognition to miniature Monets on the family’s Commodore 64.
1888 — Using a special pen connected to wires that tracked the pen’s position on paper, the telautograph sent handwritten messages via telegraph. The recorded positions were transmitted to another pen on the receiving telautograph, that would recreate the message or drawing. Not only was this the birth of handwriting recognition, but also the fax machine.
1964 — Designed without a keyboard, the 10 by 10-inch RAND Tablet let computer users choose menu options, draw diagrams and even write software using only a digital stylus. It cost about $18,000 (~$130,000 today), so its use was very limited.
1979 — The Graphics Tablet for the Apple II was the first tablet released for the home market. It wasn’t a hit, however, because of its $650 price tag (~$2,000 today). It didn’t help that the tablet wasn’t FCC-compliant, after the Commission found that it interfered with television signals.
1984 — One of the first successful consumer tablets was the KoalaPad, which let kids draw on the family’s home computer with a stylus or their fingers, for a reasonable $195 investment (~$425 today).
As computers shrunk from a whole room to just the desktop, the next step for power users was to take the computer into the wild. Portability was hot in the 1980s, and that trend hasn’t changed, as the iPad has become the go-to device for on-the-go computing.
1981 — With its integrated 5-inch monochrome monitor and full-sized keyboard, two 5.25-inch floppy drives and optional 300 baud modem, the Osborne 1 Portable Computer was a virtual roving office. Plus, at a price of $1795 (~$4,200 today), along with $1,500 worth of included software, it was a steal. Of course at 25 pounds, its portability is debatable.
1982 — The first true laptop, the Epson HX-20, was about the size of a sheet of paper and weighed only a few pounds. It was packed with great features, 16K of RAM, an LCD screen, a full-sized keyboard, a tiny calculator-style printer, a micro-cassette drive and rechargeable batteries. Although underpowered for the day, the $800 base price (~$1,800 today) made the sacrifice worth it for portability.
1989 — With the Atari Portfolio, the first PC-compatible palmtop computer, users could track contacts with the address book, create spreadsheets and write documents, for only $400 (~$700 today). Featuring 128K of RAM, a high-contrast LCD screen, up to 4MB of storage and powered for six weeks by regular AA batteries, it was a useful PC the size of a VHS tape.
Personal Digital Assistance
The best thing that came out of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) wasn’t the ability to have phone numbers at your fingertips. The advances in touchscreen technology and mobile operating system design during the PDA era paved the way for modern smartphones and the iPad.
1993 — The Apple Newton set the bar for PDAs by allowing users to sketch ideas, take notes and add contact information, all in their own handwriting. Unfortunately, the technology wasn’t perfect, which led to a public lashing in the popular cartoon strip Doonesbury, contributing to the market’s general lack of interest. The Newton was canceled in 1998, but the lessons learned would lead to the development of the much more successful iOS some years later.
1994 — Simon, from IBM, was an early PDA/smartphone, featuring a touchscreen with a full QWERTY keyboard, number pad and menu system. Users sent emails, tracked contacts, scheduled appointments, received faxes and made phone calls, all via BellSouth’s cellular network. Priced at $899 (~$1,300 today), it was a bit too high-end for most consumers, and didn’t last long on the market.
1996 — The Palm Pilot 1000 was the first PDA embraced by consumers. Although similar to the Newton, it was smaller, cheaper and released at the same time as a rise in demand for laptops, proving that people were now ready for mobile computing. The Graffiti writing system wasn’t exactly intuitive, but it was worth learning for portable convenience.
All of these technologies combined to become tablet PCs, the closest, non-iPhone ancestor of the iPad. However, tablets never really caught on as most consumers couldn’t see the need for them. As one former Apple engineer said, even Steve Jobs asked what tablets were good for “besides surfing the web in the bathroom.”
1968 — Famed computer scientist Alan Kay’s prototype-only concept for the Dynabook, a simple computer for children, set a benchmark that portable computers have been trying to reach ever since. About the size of a sheet of paper, with an integrated physical or touchscreen keyboard, kids could connect to remote servers to access text and graphics for schoolwork. The iPad comes close, but is lacking one part of Kay’s vision – a simple language for writing programs so youngsters can explore and experiment to create their own educational avenues.
1989 — One of the first tablet PCs was the GRiDpad, a rugged MS-DOS computer with a 10-inch stylus-sensitive screen in place of a physical keyboard. The computer sold well, but the parent company ran into financial trouble in the 1990s, taking the GRiDpad down with it. The designer of the GRiDpad, Jeff Hawkins, went on to develop the Palm Pilot.
1992 — The Compaq Concerto, the first convertible notebook/tablet, had a novel design. The computer hardware was built into the screen so it could detach from the keyboard and become a tablet. Unfortunately, it was not a big hit with consumers.
2001 — Apple fans might hesitate to admit it, but without the release of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, there might not be an iPad today. Tablets were essentially dead until Bill Gates introduced the new OS during his COMDEX keynote. Gates predicted tablets would rule the industry by 2006, so computer manufacturers followed his lead, but few saw major success. Still, the spur in interest helped generate improvements to mobile technologies that paved the way for the iPhone and the iPad.