A brief history of flat
Tablet computing has a long and tortured evolution. We can trace its roots all the way back to 1915. That's when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded a patent for a handwriting recognition system of sorts. In 1956, researchers demonstrated the first digital computer with handwriting recognition.
The modern tablet's more recent evolution started in Cupertino, but not with the iPad. Many manufacturers, including Apple, tried and failed at flat computers before the devices finally became mainstream must-haves. Take a look at 12 major moments that led to the tablet PC as we know it today.
Apple toys with the concept
Apple played with the idea of tablet computers early on, including a tablet prototype that dates to 1983. In 1987, Apple published a concept for a hypothetical tablet computer known as the Knowledge Navigator, a tablet that you would have interacted with using spoken commands—a bit like a super-advanced version of Siri.
In 1993, Apple released the Newton MessagePad (pictured), a pen-based touchscreen personal digital assistant that was about the size of a small tablet. Unfortunately for Apple, its Newton devices never really caught on. The company discontinued them in 1998.
Windows for Pen Computing
In 1992, Microsoft released Windows for Pen Computing, an early software package for stylus-based computing. It included early versions of a number of features that would eventually be incorporated into later Windows tablets, such as an onscreen keyboard, a notepad app that accepted stylus input, and an early attempt at handwriting recognition. A video posted to ReadWrite in 2012 gives a glimpse of what this early attempt at a tablet-friendly Windows looked like.
Gates announces Tablet PCs
At the Comdex tradeshow in November 2000, Bill Gates stood onstage and announced the tablet PC, a variant of the Windows PC that did away with the traditional keyboard and trackpad combination that you’d find on a laptop and replaced it with a touchscreen and a stylus. A year later, in November 2001, Gates introduced the first tablet PC prototypes.
These initial prototypes were bulky by modern standards, but they set the course for Microsoft’s tablet PC efforts for close to a decade. The first commercially available tablet PCs arrived in 2002.
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
These early tablet PC models ran a specialized version of Windows XP known as Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Unlike modern tablet OSes that are built around touch from the start, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition was the Windows you know and love, except with tablet-friendly features–such as handwriting recognition and an onscreen keyboard—awkwardly bolted on.
[Photo: Janto Dreijer/Wikipedia]
They’re laptops! They’re tablets! They’re...both?
Eventually, the single-purpose tablet gave way to the convertible tablet. These were effectively touchscreen-equipped laptops, except you could swivel the touchscreen around and use them as tablets instead. Although they perhaps weren’t as popular as Microsoft had hoped, you can still see traces of the convertible tablet in modern Windows tablets.
[Photo: Lenovo ThinkPad X61 by Evan Amos/Wikipedia]
Windows 7 touch enhancements
In 2009, Microsoft released Windows 7, the highly anticipated successor to the ill-fated WIndows Vista. Aside from enhancements for traditional PCs, Windows 7 featured full support for multitouch gestures—a welcome addition for touchscreen PC makers, many of whom resorted to building their own touchscreen software suites by this time.
Unlike Windows 8’s Start screen and “modern UI” apps, though, the Windows 7 interface wasn’t specifically designed with touch in mind.
Project Courier: The tablet everyone wanted from Microsoft
By 2009, it was clear that Microsoft’s vision of the tablet wasn’t going to catch on with the masses. But in September of that year, word surfaced of an intriguing tablet concept from Microsoft—the Courier.
The concept called for a dual-screen book-style tablet that you could use with a stylus or with your fingers. It was the most exciting thing to hit the tablet scene at the time, and it was just a concept. Sadly, Microsoft killed the Courier project in 2010.
HP’s Windows 7 Slate
In the run-up to the iPad, Windows hardware makers hopped on the tablet bandwagon, hoping to beat Apple the the tablet punch. HP’s slate got some buzz before CES 2010 as some in the tech community hoped for the elusive Courier tablet, but it ultimately ended up being just another Windows tablet.
Say hello to iPad
Finally, in January 2010, Apple announced the iPad, its entry into the tablet market. Apple built the iPad around the touch-friendly iOS—as opposed to trying to make OS X touch-friendly, leading some to joke that it was basically a giant iPod Touch. Of course, Apple would have the last laugh: It's sold tens of millions of iPads in the last four years and currently leads the tablet market.
Android tablets flood the market
It started innocently enough—just a few tablet makers, experimenting with running phone-friendly Android on tablets. But after them, the deluge: nearly every hardware manufacturer—from big-name companies like Samsung to relatively unknown OEMs—felt the need to build an Android tablet. Some of the initial Android tablets were OK; others were...well...crap.
For its part, Google released Android 3.0 Honeycomb in early 2011, giving hardware makers a tablet-friendly version of Android to work with.
Meet Windows 8
With the advance of Android tablets and the iPad, Microsoft had to do something. Enter Windows 8.
Windows 8 was perhaps the biggest re-thinking of Microsoft’s OS since Windows 95: It featured a touch-friendly Start screen reminiscent of Windows Phone 7, but it also let you get at the Windows desktop and run traditional Windows apps, too.
Microsoft pitched Windows 8 as a “no-compromises” solution, but it turned out to be an awkward mix of touch-friendly and mouse-friendly apps. Windows 8.1 corrects some of the issues present in the original Windows 8 release and returns the Start button to the taskbar.
Surface: A tablet Microsoft could call its own
Finally, in 2012, Microsoft introduced the Surface, its own vision of what a tablet should be. It came in two versions—an ARM-based version that ran Windows RT and an x86-based “Pro” version running full-fledged Windows 8.
The original surface had some clever hardware features, such as the “VaporMg” magnesium shell, the kickstand, and the optional Type Cover keyboard. Microsoft has since released the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, and Surface Pro 3, improving upon the original model.