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January 07, 2010

Slate and tablet computers: learning from the past

According to CNN, tablet-sized computers are now "a much-hyped category of electronics." True. The Associated Press says, "Tablet-style computers that run Windows have been available for a decade." Yes, and a lot longer than that. And a PC World editor states, "Tablet PC's are not new. The slate form factor portable computer has been around for almost a decade, since Microsoft initially pushed the concept with its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition." Nope. Microsoft did not initially push the concept with the XP Tablet PC Edition. Microsoft released a tablet OS way before that, in 1991, and even then it was just a reaction to what others had done before.

This shows how soon we forget. Or perhaps how effective current coverage has been in creating the impression that Microsoft invented tablet computers in 2001, rewriting history in the process. Fact is, slate and tablet computers have been around for a good 20 years, and in 1991, there was as much hype about slates as we have today.

A bit of slate computer history

In the late 1980s, early pen computer systems generated a lot of excitement and there was a time when it was thought they might eventually replace conventional computers with keyboards. After all, everyone knows how to use a pen and pens are certainly less intimidating than keyboards.
Pen computers, as envisioned in the 1980s, were built around handwriting recognition. In the early 1980s, handwriting recognition was seen as an important future technology. Nobel prize winner Dr. Charles Elbaum started Nestor and developed the NestorWriter handwriting recognizer. Communication Intelligence Corporation created the Handwriter recognition system, and there were many others.

In 1991, the pen computing hype was at a peak. The pen was seen as a challenge to the mouse, and pen computers as a replacement for desktops. Microsoft, seeing slates as a potentially serious competition to Windows computers, announced Pen Extensions for Windows 3.1 and called them Windows for Pen Computing. Microsoft made some bold predictions about the advantages and success of pen systems that would take another ten years to even begin to materialize. In 1992, products arrived. GO Corporation released PenPoint. Lexicus released the Longhand handwriting recognition system. Microsoft released Windows for Pen Computing. Between 1992 and 1994, a number of companies introduced hardware to run Windows for Pen Computing or PenPoint. Among them were EO, NCR, Samsung (the picture to the right is a 1992 Samsung PenMaster), Dauphin, Fujitsu, TelePad, Compaq, Toshiba, and IBM. Few people remember that the original IBM ThinkPad was, as the name implies, a slate computer.

The computer press was first enthusiastic, then very critical when pen computers did not sell. They measured pen computers against desktop PCs with Windows software and most of them found pen tablets difficult to use. They also criticized handwriting recognition and said it did not work. After that, pen computer companies failed. Momenta closed in 1992. They had used up US$40 million in venture capital. Samsung and NCR did not introduce new products. Pen pioneer GRiD was bought by AST for its manufacturing capacity. AST stopped all pen projects. Dauphin, which was started by a Korean businessman named Alan Yong, went bankrupt, owing IBM over $40 million. GO was taken over by AT&T, and AT&T closed the company in August 1994 (after the memorable "fax on the beach" TV commercials). GO had lost almost US$70 million in venture capital. Compaq, IBM, NEC, and Toshiba all stopped making consumer market pen products in 1994 and 1995.

By 1995, pen computing was dead in the consumer market. Microsoft made a half-hearted attempt at including "Pen Services" in Windows 95, but slate computers had gone away, at least in consumer markets. It lived on in vertical and industrial markets. Companies such as Fujitsu Personal Systems, Husky, Telxon, Microslate, Intermec, Symbol Technologies, Xplore, and WalkAbout made and sold many pen tablets and pen slates.

That was, however, not the end of pen computing. Bill Gates had always been a believer in the technology, and you can see slate computers in many of Microsoft's various "computing in the future" presentations over the years. Once Microsoft reintroduced pen computers as the "Tablet PC" in 2002, slates and notebook convertibles made a comeback, and new companies such as Motion Computing joined the core of vertical and industrial market slate computers specialists.

So now tablets, or slates as Ballmer called them in his CES speech, are once again a "much-hyped category of electronics." The difference is that this time, thanks to Apple and the iPhone, tablets are to have multi-touch.

Let's hope all this works. Technology has come a very long way since those early days of tablet computers, but hype is never good if it's based on a flood of me-too products of a concept that has yet to prove it can work.

For an illustrated history of tablets and slates, see excerpts of "The Past and Future of Pen Computing" by editor Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, presented as a keynote address at the Taipei International Convention Center in December of 2001.

Posted by conradb212 at January 7, 2010 04:37 PM