The very first patent for something resembling the modern tablet computer was filed in 1915, although we use the word “resembling” very loosely. This idea was for a machine that recognized handwritten instructions, and served as an early building block of touchscreen technology.
Tablet computers appeared in science fiction long before they appeared in the real world, and although these devices weren’t real, the theory behind their mechanics were. They were used in everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to some of Asimov’s fiction — the eponymous book in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was also basically a tablet crossed with an e-reader.
The EO Personal Communicator was one of the first true tablets. This was incredibly basic by today’s standards, as you would expect, but it did have wireless functionality. Apple also started early, releasing the Apple MessagePad, which used the Newton operating system. This device was some way from the iPads of today, but it included handwriting recognition software and was used as an electronic diary. Compaq also got in on the act in the early 1990s, and although the technology was very weak, there were a lot of companies trying to make use of it.
In the late 90s the Palm Pilots were released, a series of devices that proved to be very popular. These only had up to 512kB of RAM, and were still basically just electronic diaries, but they were somewhat popular with business professionals. These were the most advanced “tablets” on the market until 2002, when Microsoft and the Microsoft Tablet PC entered the scene.
This was much more like the tablets we know today. Microsoft concentrated on replicating a PC on a mobile device and they did a decent job, but despite this the Tablet PC never took off, although its name was later revived to become synonymous with these devices. The industry stagnated for several years, until Apple came along with their iPad in 2010. By this time the technology had advanced leaps and bounds, and as well as being much more powerful than its predecessors, the iPad had also perfected the touchscreen interface. This served to make all the difference and kick-started a revolution in tablet computing.
Many other developers tried to emulate Apple’s success, and in the early years Dell and Samsung released their own devices. These were followed by many more, with companies such as Motorola and Blackberry getting in on the act, but when it came to popularity, few could rival Apple, who have sold over 225 million iPads to date. Amazon and the Kindle Fire climbed on the bandwagon in 2011, and after that it seems that everyone was releasing tablet PCs. Just a year after the iPad’s release, it was estimated that there were 100 different tablets available, and today that number is far greater. It is said that nearly three quarters of all adults own a tablet, and they are getting so cheap and easy to use that many children also own them.
This is a big market that a lot of companies saw a lot of potential in, but if not for Apple’s revival of it — if not for the risk they took in trying to inspire consumer confidence in a device that had failed to take off on all previous attempts — then our knowledge of tablet computing might have been resigned to science fiction and to the failed attempts of 1990s’ developers.
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