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.
Between 1992 and 1994, a number of companies introduced hardware to run Windows for Pen Computing or PenPoint. Among them were EO, NCR, Samsung (the picture to the right is a 1992 Samsung PenMaster), Dauphin, Fujitsu, TelePad, Compaq, Toshiba, and IBM. Few people remember that the original IBM ThinkPad was, as the name implies, a slate computer.

The computer press was first enthusiastic, then very critical when pen computers did not sell. They measured pen computers against desktop PCs with Windows software and most of them found pen tablets difficult to use. They also criticized handwriting recognition and said it did not work. After that, pen computer companies failed.

Momenta closed in 1992. They had used up US$40 million in venture capital. Samsung and NCR did not introduce new products. Pen pioneer GRiD was bought by AST for its manufacturing capacity. AST stopped all pen projects. Dauphin, which was started by a Korean businessman named Alan Yong, went bankrupt, owing IBM over $40 million. GO was taken over by AT&T, and AT&T closed the company in August 1994 (after the memorable "fax on the beach" TV commercials). GO had lost almost US$70 million in venture capital. Compaq, IBM, NEC, and Toshiba all stopped making consumer market pen products in 1994 and 1995.

By 1995, pen computing was dead in the consumer market. Microsoft made a half-hearted attempt at including "Pen Services" in Windows 95, but slate computers had gone away, at least in consumer markets. It lived on in vertical and industrial markets. Companies such as Fujitsu Personal Systems, Husky, Telxon, Microslate, Intermec, Symbol Technologies, Xplore, and WalkAbout made and sold many pen tablets and pen slates.

That was, however, not the end of pen computing. Bill Gates had always been a believer in the technology, and you can see slate computers in many of Microsoft's various "computing in the future" presentations over the years. Once Microsoft reintroduced pen computers as the "Tablet PC" in 2002, slates and notebook convertibles made a comeback, and new companies such as Motion Computing joined the core of vertical and industrial market slate computers specialists.

So now tablets, or slates as Ballmer called them in his CES speech, are once again a "much-hyped category of electronics." The difference is that this time, thanks to Apple and the iPhone, tablets are to have multi-touch.

Let's hope all this works. Technology has come a very long way since those early days of tablet computers, but hype is never good if it's based on a flood of me-too products of a concept that has yet to prove it can work.

For an illustrated history of tablets and slates, see excerpts of "The Past and Future of Pen Computing" by editor Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, presented as a keynote address at the Taipei International Convention Center in December of 2001.

Conrad Blickenstorfer founded Pen Computing Magazine in 1993 and has been reporting on the mobile computing industry ever since. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of RuggedPCReview.