Tablets That Tanked
"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.
Grid Systems GRiDPAD (1989)
Distinguishing characteristics: 10-inch monochrome screen, tethered pen; 1MB of RAM, two memory card slots, and a proprietary network interface. Ran MS-DOS with proprietary pen extensions.
Original price (including software): about $3,000
The critics speak: "I was quite impressed by the pen interface and how easy it is to learn." --Rod Chapin, InfoWorld
What happened: By tablet standards, the GRiDPAD -- which was designed for businessy applications such as data collection in the field -- was well reviewed and seems to have sold reasonably well. But AST (which bought GRiD Systems from Tandy, which had acquired it in 1988) ran into trouble in the mid-1990s. When it collapsed, the GRiDPAD disappeared.
Relevant factoid: The GRiDPAD was an early creation of Jeff Hawkins, who went on to sell more pen-based devices than anybody else when he founded Palm and invented the PalmPilot.
The Momenta Computer (1991)
Distinguishing characteristics: 10-inch transflective monochrome screen, detachable keyboard, flip-up screen, tethered pen. Ran MS-DOS with proprietary pen extensions based on Smalltalk; came bundled with pen-based word processor, spreadsheet, and communications applications.
Original price: $4,995
The critics speak: "Every time I look at the Momenta or use it, I think it should be knocking my socks off. But in actual use, the compromises of its design keep getting under my skin." --Rafe Needleman, InfoWorld
What happened: Momenta started out as one of the most-hyped startups of the early 1990s, but its machine-innovative though it may have been-was slammed for being overpriced and underpowered. After burning through $40 million, laying off most of its staff, and making multiple changes in leadership-and only around ten months after its product hit the market-the company closed up shop in August of 1992.
Relevant factoid: Momenta founder Kamran Elahian started successful companies before and after, but chose to keep MOMENTA as the license plate on his Ferrari as a sign of humility.
Compaq Concerto (1992)
Distinguishing characteristics: 9.5-inch monochrome display, handle that doubled as stand, detachable keyboard. Ran Windows for Pen Computing, Microsoft's first unsuccessful attempt to give Windows a tablet interface.
Original price: $2,499
The critics speak: "My only really happy pen-based experience has been with Compaq's unique Concerto..." -- Kevin Strehlo, InfoWorld
What happened: The Concerto was one of numerous tablets from the early 1990s that had everything going for it except for the general disinterest of the PC-buying public. Compaq responded to disappointing sales by slashing the Concerto's price by $1,000. Then it discontinued the system altogether in 1994.
AT&T Eo 440 Personal Communicator (1993)
Distinguishing characteristics: 5.9″ by 4.3″ transflective monochrome screen, pen, optional cellular phone/modem module (with handset that sat on top of the screen). Ran Go's PenPoint operating system.
Original price: Around $3,000 for a fully-loaded model. (There was a $1,599 bare-bones version, but it didn't even have enough memory to run the e-mail program.)
The critics speak: "The Eo Personal Communicator, from Eo Inc. and AT&T, is a pen-based computing device of staggering technical achievement. But I wouldn't buy one." --Mark Stephens, InfoWorld
What happened: AT&T reportedly burned through $40-$50 million to buy Go, the company that created the PenPoint pen operating system, and Eo, its hardware spinoff. After the gadget flopped, Ma Bell decided to refocus its energies on devices that packed similar functionality into a more phone-like shape-which was a visionary move considering that smartphones didn't exist yet. But months later, in July of 1994, it just gave up.
Relevant factoid: Jerry Kaplan, cofounder of Go and Eo, wrote about the companies' short, ill-fated life in his Silicon Valley classic Startup. It's still in print.
Dauphin DTR-1 (1993)
Distinguishing characteristics: Pen input; both a removable mini-keyboard and a PS2 jack for a full-sized keyboard; low-power 486SLC processor; ran Windows 3.1; weighed a trim 2.2 pounds.
Original price: $2,500.
The critics speak: "Although the DTR-1 has limitations, it still makes great strides in merging mobile and desktop computing." -- Jeff Symoens, InfoWorld.
What happened: With the DTR-1, Dauphin hoped to take on Apple's Newton PDA with a full-blown (albeit tiny) PC. The unit flopped, forcing the company to declare bankruptcy. It then recovered and released a follow-up machine called the DTR-1, then another tablet called the Orasis; they also failed.
Relevant factoid: Dauphin is still in business, sort of. After a series of corporate maneuvers I don't fully understand, it acquired a biotech firm called GeoVax, renamed itself after the company it had just bought, and reinvented itself as an AIDS research company.
Microsoft WinPad a.k.a. Microsoft at Work for Handhelds (1994, sort of)
Distinguishing characteristics: Well, devices based on WinPad were supposed to use a Polaris chip with a 386 core and run a Windows 95-like OS called Microsoft at Work which was also supposed to power copiers, fax machines, and TVs. But they never shipped.
Original price: Microsoft wanted WinPad devices to cost around $500. But did I mention they never shipped?
The critics speak: "They have had trouble with the pen interface and fitting Windows down." --analyst Jesse Berst, as quoted in InfoWorld.
What happened: Microsoft convinced Compaq, Motorola, NEC, Olivetti, Sharp, and Zenith to agree to make WinPad-based devices. Then it admitted it was having trouble making the OS work. And then it gave up.
Relevant factoid: After scrapping WinPad, Microsoft started from scratch and built Windows CE, the basis for what eventually became Windows Mobile.
Tablet PC (2002)
Distinguishing characteristics: An array of screen sizes and form factors, including convertibles (which included standard QWERTY keyboards) and slates (which don't). All use a pen-driven version of Windows.
Original price: The first Tablet PCs, which shipped in 2002, cost from around $2,000 to $2,500.
The critics speak: "It's a cool demo, a conversation starter in airports and on planes, and truly amazing technology. Whether its a solution looking for a problem will be decided by the market, however, and I'll be interested to see how it turns out." --Paul Thurrott, SuperSite for Windows.
What happened: Tablet PCs still exist, and most of the people who I've run into who own one seem to like them. But at Comdex 2001, Bill Gates famously predicted they'd be the most popular PCs in America within five years. Instead, they've eked out an existence without ever thriving. Manufacturers jinxed them by initially offering sluggish models at high prices; Microsoft seemed to give up on the idea before it ever figured out how to make it compelling. I have an additional theory on the Tablet PC's failure: Most people have no particular desire to store handwritten notes when QWERTY input is faster and far easier to read.
Relevant factoid: Okay, not a fact so much as a question: I wonder if even Bill Gates carries a Tablet PC these days?
Distinguishing characteristics: 8.5″ touchscreen flanked by split keyboard; built-in stand; ran Linux.
Original price: $849
The critics speak: "...the PepperPad home Internet tablet is underpowered and overpriced. Get a laptop instead." --Sascha Segan, PCMag.com
What happened? Pepper Computer's PepperPad launched at the DEMOMobile show in 2004 and went through multiple iterations, but it was never clear just why you wanted one-especially at a notebook-like price. It's aggressively odd split QWERTY keyboard probably didn't help, either. The company folded last September.
Ultra-Mobile PC (2006)
Distinguishing characteristics: This Microsoft platform repurposed Windows XP Tablet Edition for undersized devices with pen-driven touchscreens; they don't have traditional keyboards, but do sometimes sport PepperPad-style split key layouts.
Original price: Samsung's Q1, one of the first UMPCs, started at $1,099.
The critics speak: "The 4.8-inch screen's 1024×600 resolution is sharp, but renders text so tiny that anyone over the age of 30 will not be able to read it." --Gizmodo, on the WiBrain B1E.
What happened? Microsoft's viral pre-marketing campaign, using the code-name "Origami," managed to stir up plenty of interest in UMPCs before anyone knew exactly what it was. But the concept seemed to be hanging on by its toenails from virtually the moment the first machines shipped. The hardware is often too wimpy to run Windows very well, and Microsoft did precious little to rethink the OS's interface for PCs with tiny screens and no traditional QWERTY, As I write this, UMPC is - just barely -- still extant. But Microsoft has moved on to yet another tablet variant: the "Slate PC."
Relevant factoid: When Asus started the netbook boom with its first Eee PC, some folks considered the undersized laptop to be a new kind of UMPC. No, not really -- the Eee PC was a hit because it removed all the features that made UMPCs weird and kept most of the ones that make notebook computers popular.
Now that Apple has unveiled its tablet, our attention turns to assessing its chances of success. You can find some of mine in our live coverage of Apple's event.