How Tablets Work

History of Tablets

The BlackBerry PlayBook is Research in Motion's attempt to tap into the tablet market.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is Research in Motion's attempt to tap into the tablet market.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The idea of the tablet computer isn't new. Back in 1968, a computer scientist named Alan Kay proposed that with advances in flat-panel display technology, user interfaces, miniaturization of computer components and some experimental work in WiFi technology, you could develop an all-in-one computing device. He developed the idea further, suggesting that such a device would be perfect as an educational tool for schoolchildren. In 1972, he published a paper about the device and called it the Dynabook.

The sketches of the Dynabook show a device very similar to the tablet computers we have today, with a couple of exceptions. The Dynabook had both a screen and a keyboard all on the same plane. But Key's vision went even further. He predicted that with the right touch-screen technology, you could do away with the physical keyboard and display a virtual keyboard in any configuration on the screen itself.

Key was ahead of his time. It would take nearly four decades before a tablet similar to the one he imagined took the public by storm. But that doesn't mean there were no tablet computers on the market between the Dynabook concept and Apple's famed iPad.

One early tablet was the GRiDPad. First produced in 1989, the GRiDPad included a monochromatic capacitance touch screen and a wired stylus. It weighed just under 5 pounds (2.26 kilograms). Compared to today's tablets, the GRiDPad was bulky and heavy, with a short battery life of only three hours. The man behind the GRiDPad was Jeff Hawkins, who later founded Palm.

Other pen-based tablet computers followed but none received much support from the public. Apple first entered the tablet battlefield with the Newton, a device that's received equal amounts of love and ridicule over the years. Much of the criticism for the Newton focuses on its handwriting-recognition software.

It really wasn't until Steve Jobs revealed the first iPad to an eager crowd that tablet computers became a viable consumer product. Today, companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and HP are trying to predict consumer needs while designing the next generation of tablet devices. While it may have taken time to hit the ground running, it seems likely we'll be seeing tablet computers on store shelves for years to come.

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