iPad History

In January of 2010 Steve Jobs took to the stage once more to announce a new product category. Well, at least it was new to Apple. The iPad was a tablet computer and the way that Steve was promoting it you’d think that Apple had invented the idea whole cloth.

He described the device as “magical” and those who didn’t quite get it openly derided both Jobs and Apple at the time. I mostly remember this skit by Funny or Die featuring PeeWee Herman:

In the clip PeeWee just can’t figure out what the iPad is supposed to be for and ends up serving drink from it. That kind of thing was pretty common at the time. The joke was on all of us though. The iPad sold double the predicted number and has been going strong since. As I write this I’m on my fourth iPad in five years, something I just would not have thought possible in 2010. The release of the iPad caused the tablet market to explode and is probably the reason that netbook computers disappeared.

The idea of a tablet computer is actually much older than you may think. I mean, tablet computers featured in the original Star Trek series and something very much like an iPad was prominently used in the Next Generation series. This was still in the infancy of modern computing.

So let’s have a quick look at the historical highlights that have led us to the modern tablet computer that we all know and love.

The Age of Dinosaurs

OK, maybe not THAT far back in time, but prior to the 1950s the first patents that laid the groundwork for tablet computing were filed. In 1888, if you can believe it, a patent was filed for an electrical stylus to capture handwriting. Handwriting recognition? Patented in 1915. Touchscreen interfaces for writing input? 1942.

People have been thinking about this stuff for a long time.

Rise of the Machines

In the second half of the 20th century things started to pick up considerably. In the 50s we saw the first electronic tablet in the form of the Stylator, a system to recognize handwriting electronically.

In the 60s RAND corporation came up with the RAND tablet, which now has a place in the computer history museum. It was a printed circuit screen with capacitive encoders with a resolution of 100 lines per inch.

The 60s were also when the aforementioned Star Trek tablets made their debut as well as in another juggernaut of science fiction; 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In the 70s we saw mockups of a device known as the Dynabook, which was in the tablet form, but just didn’t have a touchscreen. Basically it was half screen and half keyboard.

With the 80s came some actual devices that you could use. Of special interest to us is a concept device from Apple known as the “Knowledge Navigator”

Flight of the Navigator

Former Apple CEO John Sculley revealed details about the Knowledge Navigator in his book “Odyssey”. The Navigator only existed in a set of internally-made concept videos. This fictional concept showcased advanced features, some of which found their way into your iPad decades later.

In these, the Navigator has text-to-speech and recognition abilities, like a really primitive Siri. In fact, the concept included an animated “butler” character that basically does what Siri does today. Interestingly, the year that the Navigator is supposed to be set in (2011) is the same year that Siri was launched. There’s also a sort of multi-touch interface that would remind you of the iPhone or iPad, although not quite.

Don’t take my word for it though, check out the original video:

If you look past all the 80s cheesiness you can already see some of the concepts fall into place.

I Got 99 Problems…

The 90s saw the release of quite a few tablet computers. This was when personal computers started getting very mainstream and very useful. This is the decade of digital multimedia and the true dawn of the World Wide Web.

We saw products like the IBM Thinkpad, the HP Omnigo, and the pretty successful Palm Pilot.
I was actually pretty gaga for this stuff even back then. I owned two Palm computers and an HP iPaq. They were all pretty bad by today’s standards, but I loved ‘em. For us the really significant device was the Apple Newton.

Newton’s Laws

The Apple Newton (also known as the “Message Pad”) is probably the most direct predecessor to the iPad and was in production from 1993 to 1998. What the Newton ended up being is what we know today as a PDA or personal digital assistant. The original design called for a much larger device, more comparable to a modern tablet computer.

The Newton was one of, if not THE, first PDAs with handwriting recognition. While the Newton was being developed there was no such thing as a “PDA” and it was John Sculley of Apple who coined the term that was later adopted by the rest of the industry.

The Newton was definitely seen as hi-tech innovation, but the technology of the day just wasn’t ready for primetime. It was expensive, even for an Apple product, and the handwriting recognition was clunky and unreliable. As a concept it worked, but the execution was seriously flawed so, inevitably, it had to be discontinued. Although it did in fact become popular in some industries such as the medical world. Cheaper PDAs did end up out-competing it.


In the early 2000s Microsoft tried to set out a standard for the tablet PC, and by 2002 had products ready for release through various partners. During this decade tablets were released by companies such as Nokia, HP, and Asus. The fact is that during this time there were plenty of tablets around, but these systems were fragmented and very inconsistent in terms of their usefulness.

The Tens

Of course, in 2010 the first iPad was released and the market segment suddenly became hot. With the iPad setting the standard, other companies began emulating its core features. There have been many challengers over this time, with all but the Android-powered tablets from companies like Samsung falling by the wayside. In fact, at the time of writing in 2016 your choice is starkly between iOS or Android as the market has now begun to reach saturation.

Gold Standard

Until today the iPad remains the gold standard against which other tablet devices are measured. In some places “iPad” has become to tablets as “Hoover” was to vacuum cleaners.

Is the iPad “magical” as Steve Jobs originally said? Maybe not, but it is the very definition of being a game-changer and, thanks to it, the future of mobile computing will never be the same.