The evolution of the tablet

Posted in Apps and mobile devices.

Apple recently released the iPad Air 2 and it has been said that, at 6.1 millimeters, it is the thinnest tablet ever. Its predecessor, the iPad Air, was already quite thin at 7.5 millimeters. The fact that the release of a tablet is such a big deal nowadays doesn’t surprise people anymore but a few years ago no-one thought people would spend money on such a gadget and that it was a trend that wouldn’t last.

Tablets are a cousin of the earlier pen computing technology. Pen computing technology simply refers to the fact that one uses a touchscreen device and a stylus instead of the more traditional keyboard, keypad or mouse. The first patent for a system that recognises handwritten characters through analysing handwriting motion was already granted in the year 1915. However, the first demonstration of the use of a tablet and handwriting recognition instead of a keyboard only occurred in 1956.

One of the first pen-driven computer interfaces was The RAND tablet, developed by the RAND Corporation in 1963. The next incidence of something similar was the Dynabook, a concept educational computer developed in 1972 by Alan Kay. It was specified to weigh no more than a kilogram; the screen was capable of displaying at least a million pixels and was to offer the same functionality as a laptop computer. However the target audience of the Dynabook was children and not adults.

Next, a company by the name of Pencept created the Penpad 200, a handwriting-only computer terminal with a digitising tablet and electronic pen as input method. Back in 1987, Apple was already at the forefront of contributing to our modern use of tablets. Former Apple CEO John Sculley coined the term PDA (personal digital assistant) and he conceptualised the concept of the Apple Knowledge Navigator. This device combined touchscreen tablet hardware, intelligent agent, video conferencing and Internet connectivity, and it was the origin of things like iCloud, iPad, Siri and FaceTime.

Many other well-known companies released hardware that could now be seen as the forefathers of the modern tablet including Fujitsu, Nokia, Toshiba and HP. One of the more significant moments in the history of tablet PCs was the Microsoft Tablet PC prototype that was demonstrated in November of 2000 by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. Microsoft Tablet PCs were designed to address business needs such as note-taking and aimed at users who participate in rugged fieldwork. The first prototype ran a beta version of Windows XP (nicknamed “Whistler”) and had pen computing extensions. It captured on-screen handwriting and drawing that allowed for instant manipulation.

From 2002 onward Microsoft enrolled OEM partners like Acer, Fujitsu, ViewSonic, Motion Computing, HP and so on, to launch a range of Tablet PCs. The Windows XP Tablet PC Edition released by Microsoft included digital ink extensions for Office XP, the Tablet PC Input Panel, Windows Journal for handwritten notes and Microsoft Reader for viewing e-books. Of all the Microsoft OEM partners, Fujitsu had the longest track record of collaboration stretching back to 1993 with the development of the Stylistic 500 tablet.

Despite the long history of tablet computers developed by other companies, Apple seems to be the one company associated with kicking off the modern era of tablet computing and bringing it to the consumer market. The first iPad was released in 2010 (a mere 4 years ago!) and was described by then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs as “a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.” Before the release of the iPad, Tablet PCs bombed in the consumer market due to a lot of unresolved issues but the iPad reinvigorated the market.

Not long after, in the same year as the iPad, Samsung released its Galaxy Tab and Blackberry released their Playbook. Samsung’s release has since spawned a number of other, similar devices with much success but Blackberry’s offering didn’t have the same popularity. This was due to the fact that the device had to be connected with another Blackberry device in order to be used. In 2012 the Blackberry operating system was updated to accommodate user complaints and suggestions but the Playbook never recovered from its previous harsh criticism.

Another milestone for tablet computers was the release of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007. Even though the first model was not that impressive, it paved the way for the future boom in the ebook and e-reader market. The Kindle was released on iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Mac, PC and Blackberry making it truly multi-platform, something that is very valuable and sought-after today.

After the release of the iPad, tablets for other operating systems started to flood the market. These included the Motorola Xoom (Android), HP Slate 500 (Windows) and Fusion Garage JooJoo (Linux). One of the first small form factor tablets on the market was the HTC Flyer. Small form factor refers to motherboard specifications designed to minimise the volume of the desktop computer. The iPad Air 2 is the modern result of this form factor.

Tablet computers have appeared in pop culture since 1966. The Starfleet, Klingon Empire and other Star Trek organisations used a tablet-style computer called a PADD (Personal Access Display Device). It had a touchscreen with buttons above and below the screen, and was used with the help of a stylus. The 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” had what is called a Newspad on which the crew viewed video content. Even in literature, a tablet PC is described. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (a popular radio show later turned into a book) an e-book device is used with a screen that lights up and buttons with which to navigate through the book.

Worldwide tablet sales reached 195.4 million units in 2013 and this was mainly due to the rise in production of more low-end, smaller screen tablets and more first-time buyers coming on to the tablet market. Tablets are now more accessible to consumers that live on a strict budget and Android tablets with their reasonable prices, wide variety and user-friendly interfaces have been the catalyst for much of this accessibility. Currently about 20% of US citizens own and use a tablet. It has been forecast that the total number of tablet shipments will reach 383.3 million by the year 2018.

It seems like the tablet market and the use of tablets by people on an everyday basis is ever-increasing. These devices may have taken some time to become truly useful and functional in the eyes of the consumer but manufacturers now know that the hardware is only half of the battle. User experience, intuitive software and great timing are factors that have elevated the tablet to a household device many people now choose not to live without.