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Tablet PCs: Learning From The Past

A look at the pen computers of the last two decades puts the current wave of slates, tablet PCs, and e-book readers into perspective.

Lenovo IdeaPad U1
(click image for larger view)
The Lenovo IdeaPad U1 Tablet Laptop Hybrid
Reprinted with permission from RuggedPCReview.

According to CNN, tablet-sized computers are now "a much-hyped category of electronics." True. The Associated Press says, "Tablet-style computers that run Windows have been available for a decade." Yes, and a lot longer than that. And a PC World editor states, "Tablet PC's are not new.

The slate form factor portable computer has been around for almost a decade, since Microsoft initially pushed the concept with its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition." Nope. Microsoft did not initially push the concept with the XP Tablet PC Edition. Microsoft released a tablet OS way before that, in 1991, and even then it was just a reaction to what others had done before.

This shows how soon we forget. Or perhaps how effective current coverage has been in creating the impression that Microsoft invented tablet computers in 2001, rewriting history in the process. Fact is, slate and tablet computers have been around for a good 20 years, and in 1991, there was as much hype about slates as we have today.

A bit of slate computer history:

In the late 1980s, early pen computer systems generated a lot of excitement and there was a time when it was thought they might eventually replace conventional computers with keyboards. After all, everyone knows how to use a pen and pens are certainly less intimidating than keyboards.

Pen computers, as envisioned in the 1980s, were built around handwriting recognition. In the early 1980s, handwriting recognition was seen as an important future technology. Nobel prize winner Dr. Charles Elbaum started Nestor and developed the NestorWriter handwriting recognizer. Communication Intelligence Corporation created the Handwriter recognition system, and there were many others.

In 1991, the pen computing hype was at a peak. The pen was seen as a challenge to the mouse, and pen computers as a replacement for desktops. Microsoft, seeing slates as a potentially serious competition to Windows computers, announced Pen Extensions for Windows 3.1 and called them Windows for Pen Computing.

Microsoft made some bold predictions about the advantages and success of pen systems that would take another ten years to even begin to materialize. In 1992, products arrived. GO Corporation released PenPoint. Lexicus released the Longhand handwriting recognition system. Microsoft released Windows for Pen Computing.

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