Decade of tablets: A personal history

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

In the beginning

HP tc1100 with keyboard
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

I have been using mobile technology for decades, anxiously watching for new gadgets that could be leveraged in my work life. That started with the luggable computers of old, continued with the Palm and Pocket PCs, and eventually continued with the Tablet PC when it appeared a little over a decade ago.

My journey with the Tablet PC started with a device that I believe was one of the best-engineered gadgets ever produced. The HP tc1000 was probably the first practical slate tablet that was good enough that I used it in my geophysical consulting practice for two years.

The engineering that went into the tc1000 was certainly advanced for its time. That was a time where most everyone used giant tower computers that sat on the floor. Laptops were few and far between and they were giant, heavy, expensive things. Computers meant big boxes for the most part.

Into this landscape entered the tc1000, a small slate that had the entire computer tucked inside. Less than an inch thick, the tc1000 brought pen computing to a practical state.

I used the tc1000 in my work daily, often visiting five or six offices a day, madly scribbling notes on the screen with the pen. It revolutionized my consulting practice with its ability to search my handwritten notes, thanks to applications like OneNote. Having full Windows in a slate form meant I could use Microsoft Project to manage multiple work projects, facilitating my ability to work with several clients at a time.

HP didn't just cram a full PC in the small 10-inch tablet, it did it smartly to make it all work. The computing hardware wasn't powerful, but it worked. That HP put a hard disk in the thin package was amazing. There was no such thing as flash memory or SSDs back then.

To address the short battery life due to technology of that era, HP made it possible for the user to pop out the square-ish, flat battery and put in a fresh one. I always had a charged battery in the bag and when the first one ran dry after a few hours I'd pop in the second one. This let me get through a long day in the field, an amazing feat for the early 2000's.

The accessories available for the tc1000 made the tablet great to use when pen operation was not needed. The little keyboard with its twisting hinge made it possible to use the device as a laptop replacement. Remember, laptops weren't commonplace so this was a fantastic feat. There was a desktop stand that turned the tc1000 into a desktop computer with all the peripherals needed that could be used like a small PC. The tc1000 could be laid flat for pen use in this configuration.

The tc1000 served me well but when HP released the refreshed tc1100 I bought one immediately. This was basically the same as the first model but with better hardware components. HP smartly kept the overall design the same so those great accessories for the tc1000 all worked on the tc1100.

Next: Enter the handheld PC

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

Then there was multi-touch

HP 2710P
HP 2710
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Sadly, OEMs making tablets dropped the slate form that worked so well with the tc1x00. They all adopted the convertible notebook form which used a tablet display that twisted over the keyboard for tablet use. This meant they were all heavier than the HP slate, but due to the bigger form OEMs could put more powerful hardware inside.

While the HP slate served me well, I needed better performance to run my business. I replaced the tc1100 with the HP 2710 convertible. It was indeed heavier, but if I set it down on a table I could take notes for my work. HP produced a thin slice of a battery that attached to the bottom of the 2710 and with it in place I could use the tablet all day.

While all of these tablets worked well with the pen, it's important to note that none of them had a touch screen. They required a special pen to move the cursor or to write on the screen. That changed with the next tablet I bought.

The ThinkPad x200 was a convertible notebook that added capacitive multi-touch to the mix, made possible with Windows 7. The ability to work with the tablet screen with a finger in addition to the pen was a real game-changer. The decision to get one was easy for me as I could see the benefit. The x200 was also slightly lighter than the HP 2710, which was another factor in my decision to switch.

I used the ThinkPad x200 until I made a career change that eliminated my need to take copious digital notes. The timing of that change in work needs happened to fall around the time the iPad appeared to change the tablet world forever.

Next: Consumer meet the tablet

Consumer, meet the tablet

ThinkPad x200
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

When I changed careers in 2008 my needs for a tablet changed drastically. I no longer needed to write a high volume of notes using a pen. Once I became a full-time writer my focus changed from the pen to the keyboard.

I still used the ThinkPad x200 at first, as it was a great laptop in addition to the tablet function. While I was willing to put up with the heavy weight of the x200 when I needed to use the pen, it grew long in the tooth for tablet use just for writing.

I didn't have to put up with that heavy tablet for too long as Apple shortly introduced the iPad. I bought one immediately as my experience convinced me a tablet that concentrated on leisure activities was right for me. I wasn't alone, of course, as millions agreed with that and the age of the consumer touch tablet was born.

There weren't many apps for the iPad at first but that didn't last long. Like many others, I soon found I often had the iPad in hand for surfing the web, reading ebooks, and the like.

The second generation iPad 2 upped the game and I updated. Even though I was happy with the iPad 2, I couldn't help remembering how convenient the 5-inch Sony U-50 was to use.

That's why I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab as soon as it was introduced. The 7-inch tablet was a joy to use, although there weren't many Android tablet apps. Gradually that improved and the Galaxy Tab stayed with me for a couple of years.

ZAGGkeys Cover with iPad mini
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

I kept using the iPad alongside the Tab depending on the functions I needed at a given time and where I needed to perform them. The Tab was the tablet I carried with me when running around given its great portability.

When the original Nexus 7 tablet was introduced I replaced the Galaxy Tab. The Nexus had great hardware and was even thinner and lighter than the Tab.

Once Apple launched the iPad 4, I bought one with integrated 4G LTE. I had experimented with using the iPad with a keyboard for my writing work and since it served me well it made sense to get an iPad with the ability to get online virtually anywhere. This combination has served me very well; I estimate I've written more than 100,000 words with this tablet.

I still like smaller tablets for a lot of things so I purchased an iPad mini when it was released. The intended purpose for the mini was to use mostly at home for leisure activities. It didn't take accessory makers long to produce workable keyboards for the iPad mini, and surprisingly I'm using it for writing about as much as I do the bigger iPad.

I like to keep up with other platforms so I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 and really like it. It is a great tablet and Android apps have come a long way in functionality. I have no problem recommending it to anyone looking for a good small tablet.

Next: The now

The now

iPad 4, ThinkPad Tablet 2
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

My long history with tablets has been rewarding and a great journey. Microsoft and the Tablet PC revolutionized my work for years, and I can't imagine how it might have been without the tablet option. While it's been difficult for the tablet OEMs to reach critical mass with tablet sales, perhaps that's beginning to change with the introduction of Windows 8.

I test a lot of Windows 8 hybrid tablets, or two-in-ones as they are beginning to be called. Many of these have great tablets that are thin and light and that infuse good touch operation with the pen support that served me so well in the past.

One such tablet is the ThinkPad Tablet 2, a purchase I am happy I made. The highly portable tablet coupled with the optional keyboard reminds me a great deal of that HP tc1100 of old. A lot better hardware but so similar in form and function that it's obvious the tablet has come full circle.

When I think of using one of the new Windows 8 tablets back in my consulting days I get giddy. Having a thin tablet for taking notes that morphs into a highly portable laptop would have been perfect for my globe-trotting work of the past.

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It's too early to tell if these Windows tablets will be a hit with consumers. Professional workers will probably like them, especially those who work as I used to. In any event it's cool to see these devices appear that can straddle the work-play needs that many have.

Me, my fascination with tablets will continue as it has for over a decade. My current stable of slates is full:

  • iPad 4
  • ThinkPad Tablet 2
  • iPad mini
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0

Yes, it's too many for one person but I use each for different things. Plus, it's my job to cover this technology so I like to keep my fingers in the tablet pie. Or on one screen or another.

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