From Newton to Bathroom Web Surfing: The History of the Fabled iTablet

The New York Times added some noise yesterday to the seemingly-unending buzz surrounding Apple’s (s aapl) legendary Tablet device. I say “legendary” in the sense that, despite a complete and total absence of any sort of confirmation from Apple such a device even exists, it has already generated acres of column inches.

The NYT puts it somewhat more prosaically; “[tablet devices have] …gripped the imagination of tech executives, bloggers and gadget hounds, who are projecting their wildest dreams onto these literal blank slates.”

To recap very briefly; the latest round of rumors tell us the tablet will have a 10.7 inch screen, run the iPhone OS, feature an iPhone-like curved back, come in both 3G chip and non-3G chip enabled flavors and offer 720p resolution. It is a replacement for printed books and magazines, not a replacement for netbooks.

So What’s New?

The NYT article offers a succinct overview of Apple’s tablet endeavors, starting with the Newton MessagePad in 1993 and taking a sideways look at Microsoft’s tablet vision of the early noughties. Where it gets really interesting, however, is in quotes about Apple’s tablet from the company’s former employees, who, naturally, remain nameless. Says the New York Times:

Apple has been working on [the] tablet since at least 2003… One prototype, developed in 2003, used PowerPC microchips made by I.B.M., which were so power-hungry that they quickly drained the battery.

“It couldn’t be built. The battery life wasn’t long enough, the graphics performance was not enough to do anything and the components themselves cost more than $500,” said Joshua A. Strickland, a former Apple engineer whose name is on several of the company’s patents for multitouch technology.

This touches on a point I made last week, that a reason for the apparent failure of Microsoft’s Tablet PC was its overly ambitious vision. Simply put, Microsoft’s vision for tablet computing was too far ahead of what was practical and affordable for manufacturers to build. The components of the early 2000’s were not small enough, converged enough, power efficient or reliable.

While Microsoft left those problems in the hands of its OEM partners to figure out, Apple chose the opposite path — it decided not to release anything at all. In hindsight, it seems that was the smarter decision.

Bathroom Browsing

Beyond the hardware limitations of the day, the article explains that subsequent tablets were repeatedly shelved because “…Mr. Jobs, whose incisive critiques are often memorable, asked, in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom.”

While hardware challenges can eventually be overcome, the problem of defining clear purpose is a harder one to solve. In discussions about Apple’s tablet, I’ve found that people fall into one of two types; those who immediately see its potential purpose, and those who don’t. It’s a bit like Twitter that way. Finding a clear purpose for the tablet is apparently an issue with which Apple has been wrestling:

“I can imagine something like the iPhone with a much bigger screen being a gorgeous device with great capacity, but I don’t know where I would fit that into my life,” said a former Apple executive, who declined to be named because of Apple’s secrecy policies, but who anticipates an Apple tablet next year. “Those are the debates that have been happening inside Apple for quite some time.”

For what it’s worth, I have absolutely no difficulty figuring out where the tablet would sit in my personal computing ecosystem. When I need to free myself from my desk and go mobile, I currently have two choices: my MacBook Pro or my iPhone. The former is overkill in size, weight and computing power. The latter is perfectly capable — but just too darned small.

When I stop to think about it long enough, I am astonished I don’t already have a machine that sits somewhere between those two devices. So, figuring out where a tablet would fit in my daily life is a no-brainer. But then, I’m a geek, and hardly representative of Apple’s core target market.

Will Steve Jobs throw the proverbial spanner in the works again? It doesn’t seem wise to delay the project much longer, when faced with growing demand for touch-based, internet-connected consumer electronics (a market that existed before the iPhone but, arguably, only found its feet riding on Apple’s success with that device).

And it’s a computing paradigm that suffered a shaky start, to be sure. Microsoft’s first efforts in Tablet Town failed to inspire anyone’s imagination. But with the Courier project coming to light in recent weeks, it’s clear Redmond is still seriously pursuing a touch-based future. While Microsoft isn’t entirely there yet, Windows 7’s touch functionality takes a huge step in that direction.

I’m sure Apple isn’t the slightest bit concerned over how long it takes to get the tablet right. If the NYT’s sources are correct, it’s a device Apple has been working on for most of this decade. I wonder though, after all this time, after all this speculation and analysis and hype… will the product Apple finally announces early next year have any chance of living up to our expectations?