The History of Tablet Compters

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs
CEO Steve Jobs and Apple Inc. introduced its latest creation, the iPad, a mobile tablet browsing device that is a cross between the iPhone and a MacBook laptop. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Believe it or not, tablet computers did not begin with the Apple iPad. Just like how smartphones were around before the iPhone, manufacturers had been tinkering with variations on the concept of keyboard-free mobile computers for years prior to the arrival of the portable piece of technology that has since come to set the standard. For example, Apple, for their part, had released two earlier products that never quite caught on.  

Though a fairly recent advancement, visions of a notepad style computer existed long before people even had home computers. They were used aboard the USS Starship Enterprise when “Star Trek: The Original Series” was launched in 1966 and casually depicted in scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Similar portable devices were also mentioned in older novels such as Foundation, where author Isaac Asimov described a type of calculator pad.

One million pixels

The first serious idea for a real-life tablet computer came from the imaginative mind of American computer scientist Alan Kay. His concept, the Dynabook, was published in 1972 and detailed a personal computing device for children that functioned similarly to a personal computer. In advocating for the feasibility of such a technology, there were suggestions on which sort of existing hardware components could work inside, which included various types of screens, processors and storage memory.

As he envisioned it, the Dynabook weighed about two pounds, came in a thin form factor, featured a display boasting at least a million pixels and had a nearly unlimited power supply of power. It also included a stylus. Keep in mind, however, just how far fetched and grandiose his idea likely seemed at the time. The notion of home computing was still quite novel and laptops, of course, had yet to be invented.

Like smartphones, the early tablets were bricks

The GRidPad, the first tablet pc to hit the consumer marketplace, did eventually debut decades later courtesy of Grid Systems, one of the earliest Silicon Valley startups. Prior to its 1989 release, the closest thing were products known as graphics tablets, essentially input devices that connected to a computer workstation and allowed for different forms of interfacing such as drawing, animation and graphics through the use of a stylus. These systems, often used in place of a mouse, included the likes of the Pencept Penpad, the Apple Graphics Tablet and the KoalaPad, which was geared toward schoolchildren.

As the first coming of tablet computers, the GRidPad wasn’t quite what Alan Kay had in mind. It weighed almost five pounds and was rather bulky. The screen was a far cry from the million-pixel benchmark that Kay set forth and was barely capable of displaying in grayscale. Still, it widely picked up by large companies and government agencies that used it to help streamline record keeping. The GRidPad cost about $3,000 with software and, during its most successful year, the company moved $30 million worth of product. Also significant was that one of the company’s engineers, Jeff Hawkins, would eventually go on to found Palm Computing, one of the largest makers of Personal Digital Assistants.       

PDAs: when tablets were simpler

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) could hardly be considered tablet PCs relative to the functional wizardry offered up by products currently on the market. But during the early 90’s, they largely fit the bill with sufficient processing power, graphics and a fairly substantial portfolio of applications. The leading names during this era were Psion, Palm, Apple, Handspring and Nokia. Another term often used in reference to this form of technology was “pen computing.”   

Whereas the GRidPad ran on a version of the archaic MS-DOS, pen computing devices were among the first commercial products to wed portable computing with consumer friendly operating systems. In 1991, Go Corporation demonstrated how this kind of integration can make for a more seamless experience with the launch of the PenPoint OS on IBM’s Thinkpad 700T. Soon, more established players such as Apple, Microsoft and later Palm begin putting out competing pen computing platforms. Apple debuted their OS inside the Apple Newton Messenger, considered by some to be the predecessor to the iPad.   

Stumbling out of the block: the first true tablets

As PDAs proliferated among the consumer masses throughout the 90’s, there were a few novel, but ultimately doomed attempts to produce a true tablet that would appeal to the mainstream. For instance, Fujitsu launched in 1994 the Stylistic 500 tablet, which featured an intel processor and came with windows 95 and followed it up two years later with an improved version, the Stylistic 1000. Not only were the tablets heavy and impractical to lug around, they had a sizable price tag to match ($2,900).   

That might have all changed in 2002 had the newly released Windows XP Tablet lived up to the hype. Introduced at the 2001 Comdex technology trade show, Microsoft founder Bill Gates proclaimed tablets to be the future and predicted that the new form factor would become the most popular form of PC within five years. Its ultimately failed, partly due to the underlying incompatibility of trying to shoehorn the keyboard-based Windows OS into a purely touchscreen device, which resulted in a less intuitive user experience. 

The iPad gets it right

It wasn;t until 2010 that Apple put out a tablet pc that offered a tablet experience that people have longed for. Granted, Steve Jobs and company had laid the groundwork earlier by getting an entire generation of consumers to become accustomed to intuitive touchscreen typing, gestures and making use of applications with the wildly successful iPhone. It was slim, lightweight and had sufficient battery power for hours of consumption. By then, it’s iOS operating system was well-matured to where the iPad ran on essentially the same platform.

And like the iPhone, the iPad dominated the newly re-imagined tablet category early on. Predictably, a barrage of copycat tablets ensued, many of which ran on the competing Android operating system. Microsoft would later find its footing in the crowded market with touch-friendlier Windows tablets, many of which are able to convert to small and light laptops. That's currently where stand today, three operating systems to choose from and a tablet selection that comes in several shapes and sizes. 

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Nguyen, Tuan C. "The History of Tablet Compters." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nguyen, Tuan C. (2020, August 26). The History of Tablet Compters. Retrieved from Nguyen, Tuan C. "The History of Tablet Compters." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).