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From Newton to Bathroom Web Surfing: The History of the Fabled iTablet

The New York Times added some noise yesterday to the seemingly-unending buzz surrounding Apple’s (s aapl) legendary Tablet device. I say “legendary” in the sense that, despite a complete and total absence of any sort of confirmation from Apple such a device even exists, it has already generated acres of column inches.

The NYT puts it somewhat more prosaically; “[tablet devices have] …gripped the imagination of tech executives, bloggers and gadget hounds, who are projecting their wildest dreams onto these literal blank slates.”

To recap very briefly; the latest round of rumors tell us the tablet will have a 10.7 inch screen, run the iPhone OS, feature an iPhone-like curved back, come in both 3G chip and non-3G chip enabled flavors and offer 720p resolution. It is a replacement for printed books and magazines, not a replacement for netbooks.

So What’s New?

The NYT article offers a succinct overview of Apple’s tablet endeavors, starting with the Newton MessagePad in 1993 and taking a sideways look at Microsoft’s tablet vision of the early noughties. Where it gets really interesting, however, is in quotes about Apple’s tablet from the company’s former employees, who, naturally, remain nameless. Says the New York Times:

Apple has been working on [the] tablet since at least 2003… One prototype, developed in 2003, used PowerPC microchips made by I.B.M., which were so power-hungry that they quickly drained the battery.

“It couldn’t be built. The battery life wasn’t long enough, the graphics performance was not enough to do anything and the components themselves cost more than $500,” said Joshua A. Strickland, a former Apple engineer whose name is on several of the company’s patents for multitouch technology.

This touches on a point I made last week, that a reason for the apparent failure of Microsoft’s Tablet PC was its overly ambitious vision. Simply put, Microsoft’s vision for tablet computing was too far ahead of what was practical and affordable for manufacturers to build. The components of the early 2000’s were not small enough, converged enough, power efficient or reliable.

While Microsoft left those problems in the hands of its OEM partners to figure out, Apple chose the opposite path — it decided not to release anything at all. In hindsight, it seems that was the smarter decision.

Bathroom Browsing

Beyond the hardware limitations of the day, the article explains that subsequent tablets were repeatedly shelved because “…Mr. Jobs, whose incisive critiques are often memorable, asked, in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom.”

While hardware challenges can eventually be overcome, the problem of defining clear purpose is a harder one to solve. In discussions about Apple’s tablet, I’ve found that people fall into one of two types; those who immediately see its potential purpose, and those who don’t. It’s a bit like Twitter that way. Finding a clear purpose for the tablet is apparently an issue with which Apple has been wrestling:

“I can imagine something like the iPhone with a much bigger screen being a gorgeous device with great capacity, but I don’t know where I would fit that into my life,” said a former Apple executive, who declined to be named because of Apple’s secrecy policies, but who anticipates an Apple tablet next year. “Those are the debates that have been happening inside Apple for quite some time.”

For what it’s worth, I have absolutely no difficulty figuring out where the tablet would sit in my personal computing ecosystem. When I need to free myself from my desk and go mobile, I currently have two choices: my MacBook Pro or my iPhone. The former is overkill in size, weight and computing power. The latter is perfectly capable — but just too darned small.

When I stop to think about it long enough, I am astonished I don’t already have a machine that sits somewhere between those two devices. So, figuring out where a tablet would fit in my daily life is a no-brainer. But then, I’m a geek, and hardly representative of Apple’s core target market.

Will Steve Jobs throw the proverbial spanner in the works again? It doesn’t seem wise to delay the project much longer, when faced with growing demand for touch-based, internet-connected consumer electronics (a market that existed before the iPhone but, arguably, only found its feet riding on Apple’s success with that device).

And it’s a computing paradigm that suffered a shaky start, to be sure. Microsoft’s first efforts in Tablet Town failed to inspire anyone’s imagination. But with the Courier project coming to light in recent weeks, it’s clear Redmond is still seriously pursuing a touch-based future. While Microsoft isn’t entirely there yet, Windows 7’s touch functionality takes a huge step in that direction.

I’m sure Apple isn’t the slightest bit concerned over how long it takes to get the tablet right. If the NYT’s sources are correct, it’s a device Apple has been working on for most of this decade. I wonder though, after all this time, after all this speculation and analysis and hype… will the product Apple finally announces early next year have any chance of living up to our expectations?

10 Responses to “From Newton to Bathroom Web Surfing: The History of the Fabled iTablet”

  1. robinson

    I would really like one (for newspaper reading, ebook, casual surfing and e-mailing, etc.), but my biggest concern is screen protection. I’m hardly going to toss the tablet into my briefcase unprotected!

    How about a smaller, lighter MacBook Air type product, with a removable screen? The best of both worlds (tablet and netbook–free floating independent screen plus keyboard) with the case providing the protection for the screen.

    Or, to keep the minimalist approach, every iTablet is sold with a nice thin protective case. Or, at least, on launch day, there are gobs of 3rd party cases available (but that would ruin the secrecy).

    The other issue is synching… if the device is going to be used for e-mailing and surfin’ we’d want a way to keep our desktop or laptop Macs in the loop, too!

  2. LanceLink

    I can see myself curling up on the couch with this device. I can read a book, surf the web, remote control my TV, AirTunes. I could even browse the new LP format stuff found in iTunes while I’m listening to music.

    A notebook is too cumbersome for that and the form factor is all wrong. I don’t need to touch type when I’m in relax mode. The iPhone is too small for some of these tasks.

    It’s the device I am going to use sitting in the lounge. It will sit on the coffee table. It will be my magazine reader, book reader, music browser, picture browser, web browser, idea pad – when I want to lounge and relax.

  3. And Really guys if you’re telling me that a Macbook Pro is “too bulky” for travel. You really need an MRI because you should be living in fantasyland where you want small size and huge power, you have the 13″ model, and the macbook air, for portability a tablet sounds really cool but I really don’t see the advantage other than a big screen size. But that doesn’t mean i’m going to buy it only for that attribute, if i want to comfortably read a web page i use my laptop. if i’m in a hurry who cares about size i have my iphone. Lets not get overwhelmed. It would be like buying a 24 Karat gold Etch-a-sketch yes its cool but its still an etch-a-sketch

  4. In terms of that middle space in the author’s “personal computing ecosystem,” it sounds like you want a netbook running Mac OS. I recently picked up a Dell Mini 10 v, which I converted to running Mac OS. I updated it to Snow Leopard and 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. Using Dropbox, the computer is a perfect little workhorse for weekend trips, and long days out and around NYC. Whatever work I do gets automatically synced to my main laptop.

    And all this for only $400.

    The one thing that would really make the netbook perfect is some sort of 3G wireless card, but I can’t really justify the cost of it.

  5. Michael

    I’m also feeling uncomfortable with the iPhone OS used in a much bigger device. The same UI in that size would look awful. So I hope it looks different.

    What’s this device good for? Well, I hope it supports pen input. I would like to write my notes during lectures in a device like this. That’s why I like the presentation of Microsofts Courier project.

    Reading books in pdf format would also be very useful. As you can see, I’m looking for a tablet which helps me to do my work.

    Can Apple deliver that?

    • Why in the world would you want to write on this with a pen, having the ability to a) use your finger b) use an onscreen keyboard or c) record the whole class with a mic.

    • Michael

      First, I prefer handwritten notes. Second, I have to do some sketches. A finger is too big. And I have never thought about recording it with a mic.
      When you do that, how do you learn afterwards? Do you listen to it a second time and make notes? That’s no fun question.

  6. Ictus75

    Even with all the guessing going on, no one but Apple really knows what this will turn out to be. I suspect they will surprise us just as they did with the iphone & ipod touch. Apple doesn’t just release products, they perfect ideas and then show us a new way to interact with the world.

  7. rwahrens

    “I wonder though, after all this time, after all this speculation and analysis and hype… will the product Apple finally announces early next year have any chance of living up to our expectations?”

    VERY good question! If it doesn’t do the laundry, feed the dog, put out the cat AND bring me a beer, what the heck good is it?