Decade of tablets: A personal history

Decade of tablets: A personal history

Summary: The tablet landscape is better than it has ever been. Having used tablets in my work for over a decade, it's amazing to look back to see how we got to this point.


Enter the handheld PC

Sony u-70
Sony U-70 (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

My long-time use of handheld PDAs opened my eyes to how powerful these gadgets might be in the future. I was using them for reading ebooks — I remember Peanut Press fondly — as soon as those appeared and I envisioned even greater capability coming.

About the time I started my jkOnTheRun tech blog — eventually acquired by GigaOM and now defunct — Sony released a fantastic device in Japan that was as big an engineering feat at the time as the tc1000 had been for HP. At great expense I imported one from Japan.

The Sony U-50 crammed an entire PC into a handheld device with a 5-inch display. This thin gadget had a joystick and mouse buttons on the bezel around the screen making it possible to operate Windows totally by hand. It also used a stylus to operate the resistive touch screen, and I felt in addition to being a good ebook reader it could be a highly mobile note-taking device in my work.

The problem with that was that only Windows XP Tablet Edition supported writing on the screen. This special version of Windows only shipped on new Tablet PCs, and the Sony U-50 didn't use it. The decision by Sony to use regular Windows XP meant no good pen support.

I used my Microsoft TechNet subscription to get and install Windows XP Tablet Edition, turning the Sony U-50 into what was probably the first handheld Tablet PC. I covered that process and how well it worked on jkOnTheRun, and that caught the attention of Microsoft.

Samsung Q1
Samsung Q1 (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

This resulted in a summons to Redmond to talk about little Tablet PCs. I'm not at liberty to share the details of those conversations, but not too long after those discussions the Microsoft Origami project came to light.

I picked up one of the first Origami tablets, the Samsung Q1. This handheld device was roughly the size of a VHS video cassette — if anyone remembers those — and was an attempt to make a small tablet for the consumer market.

Microsoft put a skin on top of Windows that attempted to make the Origami tablets devices fit for media consumption. This skin didn't work very well as the hardware of that time was not that great. While the Samsung Q1 was OK, given there were no other affordable handheld PCs, its user experience fell short of what it needed to be for the consumer market.

It was impressive how the Origami tablets pushed the envelope of tablet design even though it didn't ignite the interest of the consumer market. That was soon to happen from an unexpected source.

Next: Then there was multi-touch

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, iPad, Lenovo, Samsung, Tablets

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  • A shame.

    I thought tablets had potential too when they first came out, but that was when they came with real OSes and you could install a different one on the device yourself, if you chose. Now that they all have smartphone OSes that can't be swapped out, I view them as a threat.
    • Subsentient: "real OSes"

      Please elaborate on "real OSes". How do they differ from unreal, imaginary or complex OSes?
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Don't feed the trolls.

        You know exactly what I mean.
        • Well, I dont!

          The first tablets used Windows CE and the nicest thing that can be said about it was that it was awful. It was hardly a "real OS" and so I suspect that you are trying to re-write history.
          • WinCE is not a real OS.

            These dumbed down embedded operating systems are the problem. WinCE qualifies there. Therefore, that's not what I meant.
  • History repeates itself over and over..

    I have been following tablets since the early pen computing days (Go corporation, PenPoint) in the late 80's early 90's. These early Pen computing devices being develop did not run Windows (aka #RealOS), instead like the iPad today, these early tablets ran an OS written specifically for the tablet "devices" of the time. PenPoint OS won numerous awards and was being recognized as the next revolution in computing. Many of Microsoft OEM partners were jumping on this wave and building non-Windows based Pen devices (sounds familiar, Android?).

    Microsoft seeing this as a threat to the future of Windows decided to release Windows for Pen computing in 1991/1992, Which was pretty much a skin layer on top of full blown Windows 3.1 (does't this sounds like Metro?). Using their embrace, extend and extinguish strategy, Microsoft had gotten OEM partners to using Windows for Pen computing instead of Pen Computing OS for their tablets. Leading to FTC investigations, the usual at the time.

    By the time Windows XP came around the Pen computing threat was long gone and the dream of using a light OS written specifically for tablet devices was all but gone (until the iPad came along one decade later). Windows XP Tablet PC Edition superseded Windows for Pen computing and the rest was history. No innovation, no revolution in the space for over a decade, ever since Microsoft succeeded in extiguishing the treat to Windows. We went from light Pen-based devices to Tablet PCs, Origami and UMPCs built around Windows. Went from small handheld 7" hardware to bulky squicky laptops with swivel resistive touch screens. One thing was certain, consumers weren't buying these bulky ugly expensive tablet PCs and it doesn't seem like they are buying it now. Even if it was priced the same as the iPad, as Microsoft's is promoting in their ads they're still not selling. It's not really the price but the phylosofy, the simplicity of such a form factor. The apps, the ecosystem.

    The latest attempt to distinguish the tablet "device" threat (iPad) with Windows saw a $900 million write-off on their Surface Tablet hybrid PC, and Ballmer being force out the company. The PR attempt to label this revolution "PC companion" instead of Post-PC devices also failed. WindowsRT OEMs have all bailed on the platform, leaving only Microsoft as the sole hardware maker left trying to save face. Not sure if Dell is still supporting it. Many were confused by the release of SurfaceRT alongside SurfacePro. But Imo, the reason they released SurfaceRT was an attempt again to embrace the iPad "post-PC" category only to full it back full circle to full Windows TabletPCs (SurfacePro). Steve Ballmer's number one job as CEO since taking over from Gates was to protect their bread and butter markets (Windows and Office) at all cost. Internally and externally. Until he can no longer do his job and ask to step down. Gates is next.

    So we went from an era of exciting potential light tablet computing, to Microsoft extinguishing any threats to Windows for two decades (Pen Computing, Smart Phones, Netbooks). And now back to exciting times again with non-Windows post-PC light computing devices, smart phones, wearable computing etc. Exciting times ahead.
    • One difference between 2003 and 2013: connectivity

      James Kendrick, one difference between the HP tc1100 and today's devices is the assumption of connectivity.

      So today's devices are both local and wired, and that allows lighter-weight devices and less local on-board software, not to mention the connection between the local devices and back-end servers. Right now, even the local services running on iPads etc are merely replacements for desktop apps. To take your geophysics apps as an example, why couldn't your local customer notes feed a dedicated server?

      That wires-in specialized customer service at the customer site, connected to the customer's needs, and to the available resources at the home office/ server. You could even kick-off big compute jobs locally that way. The next question for the customer would then be, how would you, as the local rep, fit in his bigger picture?

      Microsoft typically can't specialize their software that deeply, so the customer's problems would still need the local rep at their site to translate their vendor's capabilities with their own needs.

      Lots of point solutions would pop-up that way, which makes local problem-solving more feasible.
      caesar 0
    • Depends on your definition of 'innovation'

      The problem with comments like these is that they largely hinge on a messy definition of 'innovation', which almost invariably involves an underlying thought process of "it's only innovative if it's either commercially successful or if I bought one". It doesn't mean that there's no innovation if a device that only sold a few thousand units had standout features.

      You skipped over plenty of steps, including the Palm devices. We called them PDAs, but they were touchscreen, they did have a custom OS, they weren't large format, and inputting data was an exercise in patience...but would the Palm devices have been more innovative if they were twice the size and otherwise correctly specc'd? Remember how a AA battery would get you a week of use? Do you remember the LifeDrive, that had nearly all of the core features of an iPod Touch but was a bit ahead of its time and relied on a 4GB spinning disk drive?

      There's another reason why tablets that preceded the iPad weren't hot sellers - they were stupid expensive and lacked any real specs. When everyone was buying laptops at $600-$1,000, Toshiba, Fujitsu, IBM, and HP all made tablets that cost over $2,000, but from a spec perspective, could barely outperform the $600 econoboxes. The hinges were incredibly prone to breakage. You can argue that this could have been solved by ditching the keyboard, but let's face it - back then, computer software wasn't optimized for touch or pen input. OneNote was the killer app, though I always believed that a 15" desktop replacement tablet could have made Adobe Illustrator or Corel Painter the software for which they were purchased. Like WinRT today, there was little software for the platform, so no one could justify the significant expenditure for the pen input ($200-$300, fine, triple the price, not so much).

      Microsoft tried the EEE method with Palm, but Palm was the undisputed champion until they flat out imploded.

      • Microsoft in 2002:

        “We believe the Tablet PC will spark a new generation of innovations in both hardware and software that will bring new excitement to the market.”

        Where was the innovation during that TabletPC period, and where was the excitement?

        I am sure Microsoft in 2012 thought the same way about SurfaceRT, that it would bring excitement to the market and get consumers buying everything "Windows" (#RealOS). And forgetting these non-realOS toy devices. Problem was consumers weren't looking for full-blown Windows with attached keyboard in a tablet/slate form factor (except the 1 percent like James), they were looking for a larger version of their smart phone devices that shared the same app/game ecosystem. That's it.

        When the iPad first came out there were very few apps written specifically for it as well. But it had everything consumers were looking for in such a form factor, slim, long battery life, lightweight OS, easy to use, and shared the same ecosystem as their smart phones. Microsoft could have led the way here in pushing OEMs to develop such consumption-first tablet devices which would have cut down on cost for consumers. But like I said, everything needed to be tied to full Windows (Windows XP Tablet Edition). Bread and butter needed to be protected.
        • It didn't exist yet, because it couldn't.

          "Where was the innovation during that TabletPC period, and where was the excitement? "

          Seriously, it's like anyone who laughs at Microsoft for not getting tablets right a decade ago seems to forget a metric ton of reasons why you can't just point and laugh.

          In 2002, digital music was in its absolute first stages of its post-Napster existence. The iTunes Music Store had barely come into existence, and first-gen iPods were Mac only. There were no movies, and there were no apps. There was no Facebook or even Myspace in any meaningful sense. "Social Media" of the time was AIM/ICQ, e-mail, chatrooms, and the like - stuff that absolutely required a real keyboard. Cellular data was still slower than dial-up and still an expensive tool that existed mostly for business users, because most people could indeed wait until they got home to check their e-mail. This, Dave, was 2002.

          In a few years, the iPod went Windows and left companies like Creative and Sandisk to fight over the scraps. Apple developed the iTunes ecosystem, including video content and photo synchronization. In 2007 we got the iPhone, whose killer feature was the fact that it was finally possible to consolidate your cell phone and your iPod into a single touch screen device.

          Around that time, Facebook and Twitter started gaining steam, leading to a situation where frequent short posts were preferable to longer, thought out ones. This made use on a cell phone a lot more viable. Mobile websites gained steam. The jailbreak community had some reverse engineered apps that were well ahead of their time; Labyrinth and Tap Tap Revolution started there. Apple eventually made an official App Store. AT&T brought 3G connectivity, which meant DSL-like speeds, which were acceptable for mobile access as the content was still optimized for EDGE.

          Three years later, we had the iPad, which built on everything before it: a music and movie ecosystem, mobile websites that scaled up fairly well, an app store with apps that could be stretched, mobile broadband, social media, and they added an eBook library situation that wasn't primarly DRM (it had it, but most other means of getting books at the time seemed to think that people wanted to buy DRM that coincidentally also had a book involved). Desktop-oriented websites looked a lot better on the larger screen and there was less scrolling in a web browser. Eventually, the tablet-sized apps came.

          None of that existed in 2002. Where would you get music and movies? Most people didn't have broadband at home, let alone in their pocket - wifi at home was slow and very expensive. eBooks? you were either getting PDFs from Suprnova or you were getting a highly specialized device. Mobile OS that was simple? One could make the case for PalmOS, but even that took simplicity to an extreme and never really had an "app store"; software for it was still purchased at retail. All of that ignores plenty of technological advances at the time - CPUs still needed a lot more cooling than they do now, LED backlighting wasn't a thing, a 1GB CompactFlash card cost $100 or more so you needed a spinning rust hard drive.

          You can blame Microsoft for missing the boat all you want, but the bottom line is that most of the things that led up to the iPad selling by the truckload was the infrastructure behind it, that didn't exist in 2002, and even if Apple tried it then, they would have had a similar lack of excitement - the iPad wasn't possible in 2002, even if Bill Gates brought one back in a time machine.

          • All true, but...

            In 2007, Microsoft was still content with what it had in 2002, not withstanding natural performance bumps.

            They weren't attempting an ecosystem/app-store. They weren't attempting a music player. They weren't looking at alternative, low-power processors. They weren't looking at social media integration. And they certainly weren't looking at building a new mobile operating system from scratch.
          • In 2002 they had no choice but to be content...

            As others have stated it was all about connectivity. At one point I had an HP IPaq which seemed really cool at first. It could get my email, store my contacts and calendar, etc....when I was at home or in my office...where I had WiFi. But back then free public WiFi hot-spots were a fantasy for the most part and cellular data was just a dream. So....I was also carrying around a separate cell phone. If I wanted to make a call, I looked up the contact on the IPaq and then dialed the number on my phone. After using the iPaq for a couple of months, I abandoned it thinking...."if only they could combine those two devices!" (i.e. the pocket pc and the cell phone).

            At that point, there was really nothing that Microsoft or anyone else could have done to make me want to keep using a PDA of any sort. Jump ahead a couple of years to 2006 and my Samsung i760 smart phone. Weeeeeeee! Windows CE 2003 + cell phone and cellular data all in one. Exactly what I was looking for and filled my needs quite well. Remember this was long before there was something like an iPhone available and before Android too. It really was a great device for its day. So in June of 2007 is where Microsoft lost it....not 2002.

            They actually had a window in there, where there was no iphone, and no Android. The only real competition was BlackBerry. This was Microsoft's time when they could have really innovated - but instead let Pocket PC (Windows CE) die a long, slow, painful death while Apple release the first iPhone.
          • I think I need to write a book on "the official history of mobile computing

            "In 2007, Microsoft was still content with what it had in 2002, not withstanding natural performance bumps."

            What else was there? There was further refinement in that space, but desktop apps were basically what was available - and that's what the market catered to at the time.

            "They weren't attempting an ecosystem/app-store."
            Handango was, and it was quite possible to purchase plenty of mobile software retail. The general consensus then was that the future was in the browser, and Microsoft was still under a metric ton of anti-trust litigation at the time. Again, remember that viable, affordable cellular data is relatively new - it was foolish to attempt to build one on an EDGE connection, and, especially then, why would someone buy into an ecosystem that wasn't desktop compatible and only worked where there was wifi? Meanwhile, Android "fragmentation" is child's play compared to Windows Mobile fragmentation. Some devices had 4:3 screens, others had landscape. Some had resistive screens, some had capacitive, some had neither. Some had GPS. Some had SD card storage. Some had cellular radios. Some had hardware keyboards. For better or worse, Microsoft let a highly diverse set of hardware run Windows Mobile. While this was great for users, it also meant that it was a complete nightmare for anyone who even remotely attempted to write software for it.

            "They weren't attempting a music player."
            Remember the Zune? It was an attempt, and objectively, not a completely sucktastic one...but it didn't play anything from iTunes and it was so late to market that the general public had inertia there. They included the poorly named "squirt" feature that was so ridiculously DRM-encumbered as to be utterly worthless, required two zunes to do it, and for most people wasn't worth the effort of migrating over from iTunes (whose music was still, at the time, DRM encumbered, so basically the only music that would work on a Zune would be self-ripped stuff and stuff from Kazaa).

            "They weren't looking at alternative, low-power processors."
            WinMo ran on non-x86 processors. The problem was that, at the time, ARM processors really couldn't handle the kind of load that a full-screen tablet would have required. ARM processors were too weak and would have been impossibly sluggish for a desktop OS, their existing mobile OS had software titles that measured in the hundreds (yet 100,000 apps for WP8 is considered anemic by today's standards), and to put an actual mobile x86 processor on it and run a desktop OS that had a healthy software ecosystem was...exactly what they did.

            "They weren't looking at social media integration. "
            Remember the whole "it's all gonna be in the browser" schtick from before? The concept of installing a social media app locally made very little sense at the time, especially since a mobile site made more sense - even Apple didn't have one for the first year of its existence. Conversely, Facebook is very well integrated into WP8 now, so if that was a problem, it's now a solved one.

            "And they certainly weren't looking at building a new mobile operating system from scratch."
            When you've got roughly 1/3 of the market share for mobile devices, it doesn't generally occur to throw it all away and start from scratch. Making something tablet specific is something that ONLY Microsoft has done; it's called WinRT - and everyone except Loverock and Owlnet laugh at it for the very reason that it's an island to itself. Apple tweaked their existing iOS, as did Google, and thus phone and tablet are compatible. Meanwhile, Microsoft's logic with WinMo was that people wanted something familiar, which is why they had the interface they did for most of WinMo's existence - it was a merging of Windows and Outlook, the two most commonly used Microsoft products for the business users they thought comprised the market.
    • There was also "Magic Cap" before "PenPoint"... anyone heard of that!!

      You remind me of the times when portable devices, as big as today's laptops, first came out and the OSs that were written specifically for these devices, not sure if that means that they were not real OSes, they were... Even before PenPoint, there was another company, General Magic Inc, probably the first one to come out with an OS, named Magic Cap, specifically for portable devices in the early nineties. We were involved in creating some great products, including a terminal emulation program for VT100 emulation and access to e-mail systems on the move, a product called "Mail on the Run". These same products were later created for PenPoint OS. Heck, its been almost 2 decades now since that happened and the tablet world has really been through a metamorphosis, of sort.
  • My 10 Years

    While I haven't had as many tablets as you, I also started a decade ago with the Motion Computing m1300, a slate shipped with WinXP Tablet Edition. It had a Wacom digitizer and I was an early adopter of Evernote's standalone Windows program and Agilix's GoBinder (which I still miss).

    I moved from that to my OQO 02. Windows Vista (later Win7), a 5 inch screen, Wacom digitizer, slide out keyboard with a trackstick and a Via CPU, all total weighing one pound. The fan was loud but it was pocketable (albeit bulky at an inch thick). Unfortunately, even with the fan, the heat fried the motherboard just after OQO went bankrupt.

    I then tried an Asus T-91MT, a 8.9" Win7 convertible netbook at about 2 pounds. It was lightweight in every sense of the word and, despite the faster processor and bigger screen, much less usable than my OQO.

    When HP announced the HP Slate 500, I preordered it immediately. It was a Win7 slate with an 8.9" screen weighing about 1.5 pounds and a dual digitizer - capacitive and an active digitizer from n-Trig (not as good as a Wacom but far better than a capacitive stylus).

    My latest is yours as well, the Thinkpad Tablet 2. It's great in everything but its weight; I still long for one pound or less. If the Synaptics system the Dell Venue 8 Pro is rumored to use rates well, that may be my next one, although if Lenovo is listening I'll preorder an 8", Wacom, Thinkpad Tablet 3 Mini if one is produced.
  • Used the Surface Pro yet?

    It fulfills all my technical needs for a tablet and works great as a small laptop too. What are your opinions on it?
    Stuart Becktell
    • Too heavy

      It weighs 2 lbs which is terrible for a tablet today.
      • Mine replaced my laptop...

        Mine replaced my laptop of 5 years. The screen is obviously smaller but it's so much lighter, more portable, and easier to travel with compared to my big Dell 17" Inspiron.

        If you look at it as a tablet, then it's a little bit on the heavy side (8.6 oz heavier than an iPad before bulky case). If you look at it as a laptop replacement, then it's small, sleek, lightweight, powerful, and works as a tablet as well!

        I had a choice. Buy a laptop and a tablet or save money with the Surface Pro and cover all of my bases. I haven't regretted it yet.
  • No value until both data and phone capable.

    For me tablets had no appeal until I heard about the Samsung Galaxy's that were being sold overseas with both data and phone capability.

    For us in the USA the best of them is probably the GT-P6800 7.7 but I sent my daughter a GT-P3100 7 inch and she loves it. There is also the GT-P5100 10.1. They are all quad band, GSM full phone capable devices. My daughter and I both have Straight Talk GSM SIM cards in ours.

    The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 line are also being sold overseas with quad band GSM LTE with full voice support. I might upgrade to the Tab 3 8.0 Tablet with support for GSM voice communication, SMS, and MMS (SM-T311/T315)
  • I remember my tc1100 & my SOny PDA's

    the 1100 was great. used it all over the place, had wi-fi & Micosoft word so was like having a laptop. Still have it. Emotional attachment to it & my SOny UX-50. What a great brick of a PDA. I had every layer of Sony PDA. Couldn't live with out it, and when Handspring came out with their attachments, viola, the 1st smartphone. Great times. Now the Ipad and a an Iphone is all I use, that and my SOny ebook reader. Still use a PC for heavy computing.