Surface tension: The long, strange history of the Windows tablet

Surface tension: The long, strange history of the Windows tablet

Summary: The launch of Surface Pro is Microsoft's most important attempt to build a tablet device. But the company has been trying to get this right for a long, long time.

Surface Pro
The Surface Pro -- is this the Windows tablet we've been waiting for? (Credit: Microsoft)

It is one of the most famous predictions in technology. At the 2001 Comdex show in Las Vegas, in front of an audience of 15,000 people, Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates described his vision for the future of the PC.

Showing off a prototype of Microsoft's tablet device Gates said: "The tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a tablet as my everyday computer. It's a PC that is virtually without limits--and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

He was wrong.

It's only now, in 2013, that tablet devices are set to outsell laptops for the first time - and it's not Microsoft's technology that has inspired the shift, but the tablet created by Microsoft's arch rival, Apple.

At the end of this month Microsoft will start selling its latest and most ambitious attempt to crack the tablet market--the Surface Pro, a high-end tablet device aimed at business users who might otherwise buy an ultrabook.

The launch of Surface Pro comes just three months after the arrival of the Surface RT tablet, aimed at consumers.

Microsoft's latest assault on the tablet market is vital to the company's future, because now the stakes are higher than ever. Shipments of PCs, Microsoft's traditional heartland, are in decline, while those of tablets and the closely allied smartphones are seen as key areas of growth for software makers--and Microsoft is playing catch-up in both. This time, after a decade of repeated false starts, Microsoft has to get this right. And that means rethinking its most cherished product: the Windows operating system itself.

Microsoft's early history with tablets

For nearly two decades, Microsoft has been attempting to popularise tablet computing. It published Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 in 1991--a software suite for Windows that was designed to add pen computing capabilities, such as an onscreen keyboard and notepad program, to the OS.

One of the early tablets that ran Pen for Windows was the NCR 3125. Adverts at the time showed a chunky monochrome gadget that can "automate handwritten forms, recognize graphic information and transmit it anywhere in the world via modem".

Weighing in at around 1.8kg (more than twice the weight of an iPad today) the NCR 3125 cost $4,795 (which could rise to around $6,000 with add-ons--the equivalent of over $14,000 today), which meant it was hardly a mass market or consumer play.

Unsurprisingly, the tablet market was tiny at the time, with device shipments in the region of tens of thousands a year--if hardware makers were lucky.

The era of the Tablet PC

But Microsoft's interest in the tablet market had only just begun; by November 2000, at the Comdex show in Las Vegas, it was demonstrating something it called "Tablet PC" with the aim of having the devices available in 2002.

Tablet PC prototype. (Credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft's perky-looking prototype featured a built-in pen and was intended to be the primary device for business users who spent part of their day away from their desks.

Adding wireless and Bluetooth to tablets made them a more viable business tool than their predecessors, and improvements to display quality and battery life also helped make them a more attractive buy.

Microsoft insisted at the time it had learned from its tablet experiences of the previous decade: "Relative to our own Pen Windows initiative in the mid-1990s, for example, we've learned to look at the complete user experience rather than simply building support for the pen into the operating system," said the executive in charge of the project.

A year of Tablet PC development later, and Gates took the stage at the Comdex trade show in bullish mood, making his grand pronouncement about the future of tablets, and showing off prototypes of the Tablet PC from manufacturers such as Toshiba, Compaq and Fujitsu.

Over the next year these devices gradually appeared in the market, running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

But they were still heavy and expensive and mostly aimed at particular business markets--education and healthcare for example--where being able to fill out forms electronically would be useful.

Microsoft's perky-looking prototype featured a built-in pen and was intended to be the primary device for business users who were away from their desks

"The promise of handwriting recognition still outpaces the reality," said ZDNet UK reviewing one 1.85 kilo, £1,799 device. "The actual handwriting recognition was infuriatingly unpredictable: amazingly good one minute and completely useless the next, just words apart."

Unsurprisingly, with expensive and infuriating technology, the Tablet PC failed to take off as Gates had promised. The underwhelming technology, coupled with poor marketing, the high cost of licensing the operating system from Microsoft, and a limited choice of models, meant there was little demand.

Tablet PC sales struggled to climb above a few percent of notebook sales — in Europe fewer than 100,000 tablets were shipped in total during 2003.

Still, performance gradually improved and the prices slowly came down, although tablets--despite Microsoft's best efforts--remained an expensive niche product.

The ultra-mobile PC and Courier

As well as the tablets aimed solely at business users, Microsoft made a few forays into the consumer space with touchscreen devices.

In 2006 it unveiled Project Origami, an effort to popularise 'ultra-mobile PCs'. UMPCs, as they were known, were a set of smaller form factor touchscreen devices aimed at consumers. The mini-devices still ran full versions of Vista and XP, and fell somewhere between laptops and PDAs.

R2H from Asus
Ultra mobile PCs, such as this R2H from Asus, didn't quite catch on. (Credit: Asus)

However, as CNET said at the time: "Thanks to clunky interfaces, high prices, and poor battery life, we have yet to see one that we'd consider useful in day-to-day real-world situations", adding: "the UMPC is still largely an idea in search of a purpose". The devices struggled to find a market and were no match for the low-cost netbooks that were also appearing at the time.

By late 2009 Microsoft was ready for another swing at the tablet concept...

Topics: Tablets, iPad, Microsoft, Mobility, Windows, Microsoft Surface

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  • The article is a good tablet history lesson...

    As a tablet for work and play, Surface will have tremendous success in the coming years...
    • Probably not

      Established companies with markets and products/profits to protect, rarely do well dealing with industry inflection points and disruptive technologies/products.

      MS products do not readily lend themselves to this new paradigm and MS cannot easily abandon its past.
      • Windows RT...

        ...suggests that you're wrong, and while it's often misunderstood as limited, I do believe it's the direction Microsoft would ultimately like Windows to go long term. It solves a LOT of the problems of the old Windows era (no more malware, curated marketplace, and no -- or at least easily removed -- pre-loaded crapware). It also allows them to be much more modular in their development efforts. Apps can now be updated individually rather than over the course of OS updates.

        Besides, classic Windows can be run by advanced users as a virtualized environment or remote desktop and as apps mature for business, we can eventually reduce our dependency on the desktop environment.

        I'm quite excited about the possibilities of dumping all the old-school Windows history. How many companies do you know that are both able AND willing to do so? Not many.
        • Windows RT

          ...suggests that DT Long is right. Surface RT has been a failure, shipping (not selling) only 1 million units in the last quarter coming in well below MSFT's expectations. MSFT had to cut in half their orders from factory. Samsung has announced they will not release their Windows RT tablet for lack of demand. Nobody's interested in the Surface RT.

          Apps can be updated individually? What apps? Android and Apple have the app stores. Wake me up when MSFT finally has something worth looking at.
          • Maha888 .. I you haven't noticed Owlll1net, GoodThings2Life and Loverock

            Davidson, Ye, toddbottom3, etc are all part of the same Microsoft "Clogedbottoms" fan club. They only know how to spin anything one way and thatt's towards Microsoft..................oh well what else is new
            Over and Out
    • Wow

      Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online(Click on menu Home)

      Happy New Year!
    • That's for the market place to determine

      it is a new product, so we don't have any idea whether it flies or fails.

      Microsoft has had big hardware successes (xbox) and big hardware failures (Zune), so it really could go either way. As much as some people malign the Zune, it was a nice device with some good capabilities... and yet it failed anyway.

      So, like I said - we'll see. It isn't up to us, but the market.
    • wrong

      The very problem is the so called tablet for work and play - you and MS can keep looking at it that way to your grave. They are for play, and niche business purposes only, not general purpose PC replacement work. Any compromises that attempt to make it do work as well as play are exactly what has kept MS out of the game and will continue to until nobody even cares about 'tablets' anymore.
      • It's not a tablet - MSFT doesn't do tablets

        Surface Pro isn't a tablet. MSFT still doesn't get it. They are still trying the old adage: put the desktop OS onto the tablet and add a stylus too. Surface Pro is a laptop with a touch interface. Surface Pro runs on Intel chips (just like laptops), Surface Pro is designed to be used in landscape mode (just like laptops), Surface Pro has a battery life of 4 1/2 hours (just like laptops).

        If all MSFT had to do was make a nice laptop, that they could do! History tells us they are incapable of making a good tablet.
    • Agreed. Sure the same old naysayers will will say/pray otherwise

      but then some don't see/won't see what is happening.

      MS made Windows that runs on ARM, something the same old people said they could NEVER do.

      They where so wrong on that, and now their only argument is that "Windows RT isn't running X86 hardware which is bad? So now they have Pro, too.

      They're ahead of everyone else in that respect, so you're right, it will be sucessful going forward.
      William Farrel
    • Very good they cancelled Courier

      Anyone who thinks Courier would've been a success is a moron. A tablet with two touch screens in 2010 would've been extremely expensive, poor battery life, and either heavy or underpowered. There also would've been no app store or developer support without the backing of the Windows userbase. If Courier was such a promising product why hasn't anyone copied the idea and had a big hit?

      What Courier represents is Microsoft's maturity and the realization that they needed to stop building one-off products (Zune, Kin, WebTV, ultimateTV, Xbox) that didn't tie into the Windows ecosystem and developers. Instead Microsoft decided if they were going to build their own tablet (Surface) that it had to be a part of the greater ecosystem, not something separate from it. I imagine if Zune and Plays For Sure MP3 players had worked the same that things would've turned out better in that space for MS and it's partners.
      • Re: would've been extremely expensive, poor battery life, and either heavy

        Sounds like every single tablet device Microsoft has released since then.
  • But Microsoft STILL has not learned it's lesson.

    Bolting on a half finished Touch interface to some nice Hardware isn't enough. You still have to drop down to "Legacy Mode" to do basic houskeeping and file managment. Win7 (which is what it is at it's heart is still not a touch based OS. and that becomes readily apparent when you start dickin' around with your fingers. No, COURIER was the right direction, now that Sinofsky's gone Maybe they could bring that bad boy back- (and make a more Tablet /Courier Centric OS without the flaws of RT.
    • That may be true

      but most of what you do in the desktop you simply can't do with an iPad or android tablet without plugging it into a computer and moving things around that way. That is why they have usb and most of them have keyboard docks. When you need to do those maintenance tasks you use the dock or some sort of bluetooth or usb keyboard/mouse. I do have to say that I don't have a problem using the desktop interface with touch on the smart pc that I bought though.
      Sam Wagner
      • Here here!

        I totally agree with Sam Wagner. I have a Smart Pc Pro with 200dpi screen (1080p 11.6") and I have no problem interacting with the desktop with touch, or pen.

        But I would also add that a full Windows 8 hybrid (especially with Haswell) is every bit a tablet as the Surface RT, except that when I want it to it is also a full computer. I think people with limited Tablets don't want to admit that they are limited. So that when they look at Slate PCs or Hybrids they want to find fault in them that doesn't exist.
  • the description of the UMPC

    "Clunky interface, high price, an idea in search of a purpose", perfectly describes the Surface. MS had it right with Courier but chose to kill it.
    • You just described Android, krossbow

      to a tee, no less.
      William Farrel
      • Android - "an idea in search of a purpose"?

        Android has more than 50% share of the mobile market and growing.

        Do you pride yourself on saying stupid things?
      • Ha - ridiculous.

        You are just a hater out of jealousy as your beloved MS is going down the crapper, and android is now the finest mobile OS platform for decades to come. At least I hate MS for good reasons after 20 years of watching their shenanigans and not just randomly claim they make crap.
        • Android is poorly designed OS

          Android gets the slowest and worst sunspider scores despite having the most advanced quad core processors. The performance of Android is poor compared to competitors. Isn't it embarrassing that it takes more than double the hardware power to get half the performance of Windows Phone? Android also consistently has the lowest user satisfaction scores.