The History of Tablet Computers: A timeline

Summary: Today's tablet landscape is dominated by Apple's iPad and Android devices from Samsung, Google and others, with Windows-based tablets from Microsoft and its partners making recent inroads on the market. But where did all these tablets spring from?

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The History of Tablet Computers: A timeline

Your age probably determines when you think tablet computers were invented: 'Millennials' (a.k.a. Generation Y) are unlikely to look further back than Apple's first-generation iPad in 2010; Generation X types may recall Microsoft's 2002 Tablet PC launch and subsequent releases; and Baby Boomers (myself included) with fond memories of Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, will probably have (increasingly) vague recollections of the 1990s devices spawned by such science fiction — Apple's Newton-based MessagePads, early Fujitsu tablets, the first IBM ThinkPad, for example.

An evolving heritage

For a supposedly 'new' style of computing, tablets have a lengthy and convoluted heritage (remember Ultra Mobile PCs? They petered out in pre-iPad days and came back as today's small form-factor tablets). To get an impression of that still-evolving heritage, explore our Dipity timeline (above). We've included a lot of tablets (and tablet/notebook convertibles and hybrids), but do not claim to have covered every significant product. In particular, we haven't explored PDAs (which merged with mobile phones to become today's smartphones and phablets), beyond the Apple MessagePad. If you recall a particularly influential device that we've missed, do let us know — we'll keep updating and amending the timeline.

Topics: Tablets: Where's the Productivity?, Tablets

About

Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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9 comments
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  • Nice work!

    Is it too late to add the EO?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EO_Personal_Communicator

    That Knight-Ridder concept tablet (from the video) might be interesting. There was also the QUE tablet (Plastic Logic related) that was shown before the iPad but then abandoned....
    Jack Schofield
    • EO

      Jack,

      The EO Personal Communicator is in there, April 1993 (it may take a little fiddling with the zoom button to find!). I will keep updating this timeline with things I've missed, so keep the suggestions coming.
      Charles McLellan
  • Gen-X Type (1982)

    I did remember the days of Microsoft Tablet PC since the years before when iPad shows up. As far as I know, tablet PCs require the use of stylus when it comes to Windows XP Tablet PC edition and the tablet devices cost over $1,000 (something like fifteen hundred dollars as far as I remember...ouch) which I could not afford during that time.

    And yes, I do remember the days of Pocket PC, way before iPhones came into scene. If only I could bring myself back to the old days of synchronizing e-mail, contacts, tasks, and calendar via a USB cable instead of over the cloud. Laugh at me if you want, but I used to do that with Windows ActiveSync (Windows XP days) and Windows Mobile Device Center (Vista/7 days) and I have to tell you that I love it. Currently, I'm using Zarafa with Z-Push so that I can get e-mail, contacts, and calendar synchronization for my Android smartphone and tablet, along with Tasks and Notes for MS Exchange (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.myklos.inote) to bring back lost functionality that is found in Windows Mobile.
    Grayson Peddie
    • Motion Computing PC LS800

      Got one sitting on one of by shelves at work right now.

      Due to the small screen (8") it wouldn't load win8, but I had to give it a try.

      The hardware is still good, but the OS out-dated.
      GotThumbs
    • Yes, those old Windows Tablet PC were expensive.

      But oddly they were so well put together that many still function to this very day. We used Windows Pen computing systems on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq while I was still in the service. That was only 5 years ago. I imagine they are being retired now as one of my IT buddy's still in the DoD told me they are ramping up to replace with Surface Pro tablets now. I would love to see a military hardened version of the Surface Pro. Bet you could drive a M-1 Abrams over it and it would still keep chugging along.
      The Heretic
  • Leading Edge Gen X here

    I remember all 3, and thank you Jack, for including the EO. It was important at the time because it offered the promise of wireless communications. That was back when I was in computer sales.

    When I entered corporate IT support, I deployed a fleet of Compaq Concerto tablets with Microsoft Pen Windows, in my DC office. I also watched Microsoft abandon the platform.

    Let's not forget the Palm VII PDA. Although it was a handheld organizer, it introduced the early concept of apps. The web clipping apps were HTML apps designed to access certain websites that had provisions for mobile users of the time, meaning, the ability to send a truncated page without graphics and other elements that would slow the mobile device down. You downloaded these apps from Palm's app store. You paid a monthly subscription of about $10 for a data plan. I used this device to MapQuest from coast to coast, and research info and news, and corporate e-mail!

    Also, try to tell me that the Microsoft Surface Pro is not a steamrolled version of the old Compaq Portable III. Even though that device was not a tablet, it's modernized form factor is recognizable today in devices like the Surface Pro.
    BTRDAYZ
  • Don't forget back in 1997 the Palm Pilot. My first PDA.

    This was such a great product for me at the time. Only thing missing was the ability to make phone calls. :-)

    Pretty amazing to see the timeline.

    Of course Apple may not like the idea of people learning the REAL origins of the tablet concept. ;-)

    My most resent tablet is the new Surface Pro II (8gigs, 256gb SSD). Really pleased with speed and performance running SQL Server and Toad for Oracle.
    GotThumbs
    • It's ok!

      Apple won't mind, considering that many of the talented people who developed the Palm originally worked at Apple on the Newton MessagePad program. This led to the Kyrocera Palm Phone. You'll also see on the Timeline that Apple had some very distinct concepts for a tablet, early on.
      BTRDAYZ
  • It's Pretty Good

    You forgot the Tandy Z-PDA & Casio Zoomer.....

    The Tandy Z-Pda was the biggest competitor to the Apple Newton.
    vadbaxter