"Insanity," novelist Rita Mae Brown wrote, "is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results." By that standard, the long history of tablet computers doesn't quite count as insanity -- manufacturers have tried a variety of form factors and features over the years. But the results are the same, over and over again: failure. It's the classic example of a gadget that the industry keeps coming back to and reintroducing with all the hype it can muster -- and which consumers keep rejecting.
Last week, Apple announced its first true tablet. It took the company 34 years to get around to it, and it's just about the only outfit in the business that abstained until now. Whether the device looks brilliant or misbegotten, all evidence suggests that there won't be much that's repetitious about it. Even so, it's worth looking back at more than two decades of attempts to get tablets right -- none of which really succeeded, and some of which failed on a monumental scale.
"Tablet" is a squishy term. For the purposes of this story, I'm limiting it to general-purpose computing devices (usually running general-purpose operating systems) aimed at consumers and business professionals. That rules out the two areas where tablet-esque gizmos have found success: PDAs (and their descendants, touch-screen smartphones) and units designed with specialized business applications in mind. But it still leaves numerous platforms and devices to contemplate. And the list that follows is far from comprehensive.