What the iPad looked like in 1994 and why it took nearly 20 years to arrive

Take a quick peek at this video which was on the AllThingsD site earlier today. It was created by the newspaper publisher Knight Ridder to show how one day newspaper content would be displayed on tablet style mobile PCs. If you listen to the commentary you’ll find the predictions unerringly accurate.

‘Tablets will be a whole new class of computer. They’ll weigh under two pounds. They’ll be totally portable. They’ll have a clarity of screen display comparable to ink on paper. They’ll be able to blend text, audio, and graphics together. And they’ll be a part of our daily lives around the turn of the century. We may still use the computer to create information, but we’ll use the tablet to interact with information, reading, watching, listening.’

So when was the video made 2007? 2002? It actually dates from as far back as 1994. To put that in context, that’s before Netscape patented its web browser and probably a lot of time before anyone you knew used email.

The interesting part is that the company predicts that the tablet will be widely used by the end of the last century. As we all know now they were in fact at least a decade out on that one.

So why did it take so long before the tablet finally delivered the newspaper proprietor’s dream of content on the go?

HP tablet.jpg

Well there are obviously technological reasons, but ironically if you take a closer look most of the breaks on the tech side of tablet production were resolved in the early noughties. Broadband (and Wi-Fi) were becoming available, 3G was establishing itself and Samsung and Sharp were mass manufacturing high resolution LCD screens. Operating systems, storage capacities and even processor power were ready to cope with the demands of tablet PCs by around 2002.

There were of course some attempts to produce tablet style devices. Microsoft had its own Windows tablet operating system as early as 2002 with high profile devices made by companies like Toshiba. These were first class touch screen devices invariably supported by keyboards to enable the user to make full use of the suite of Windows products.

Nokia N800.jpg

We shouldn’t also forget Nokia’s very clever and much under-rated 770 tablet device which debuted in 2005. It had a 4inch widescreen display and was optimised to make the most of web based content. Nokia has subsequently launched a series of similar devices like the N800 and N900.

Finally the well heeled early noughties geek almost certainly wouldn’t be seen dead without a PDA from Palm, Handspring, HP or a connected phone model, which were sold in the UK by O2 and T-Mobile and branded XDA and MDA.

So the hardware was kind of in place a few years after the guy from Knight Ridder predicted – so why didn’t the tablet explosion begin then? I think it is largely down to the publishers not pushing for it. Here’s three reasons why the tablet never took off in the mid noughties.

1 Publishing companies didn’t want to take their magazines/newspapers online in this way – Much of the iPad gold rush from publishers has been driven by the fact that their print titles are in decline. Ten years ago magazine and newspaper publishing was still delivering very healthy profits. Also blogging was a niche activity and, having been bitten once by investing in websites in the late 90s, mainstream publishers generally were risk adverse when it came to new digital developments. Put simply there was no real reason for them to push for a tablet style device to display their content at that point.

2 It took Apple to make tablet devices sexy – There used to be a very real stigma about touch screen devices. To operate the early models you needed to use a stylus – which was fine – until it disappeared down the back of the sofa. The Microsoft touch screen tablets worked well, but never had an especially good public image. They just didn’t capture people’s imagination. We shouldn’t forget that even prior to the launch of the iPad there were many cynics who said that making a tablet was a strange move. It took Apple’s peerless marketing machine to make tablets sexy.

3 Devices were still focused on productivity – Unless you have bought a keyboard for your iPad chances are that you use your tablet almost exclusively to consume content not create it. Microsoft and others in the early noughties had products that enabled users to create content meaning that the devices were seen as productivity tools rather than entertainment ones. Because of this publishers never really had the imagination to think about how their content could be consumed on tablets.

Ok, so by the time the iPad launched in 2010 quality components were cheap enough to enable Apple to offer the device at a competitive price. The iPad also had the advantage of the iPhone app store already being established and developments in cloud computing which meant that users could stream content rather than having to house it all on the device’s meagre storage. However I do think that had publishers pushed for a new format we could have seen iPad style tablet devices as long ago as 2003-2004.

Ashley Norris


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