Reposted from a previous Blog. The Apple Newton MessagePad, Apple’s ‘failed’ PDA, is sitting on my desk. It’s a late model 2100, which was the last iteration Newton MessagePad to ship back in 1998. Every time I use one, I immediately think of a tablet computer, both because of its size and functionality: it’s much more than just a small, simple PDA.
But it’s more nostalgia than anything: the Newton was pretty much before my time. Today’s technology is quite a bit more advanced than when the Newton had its run. From powerful mobile processors and graphics chips, to high-resolution screens and high speed wireless connectivity, mobile devices today well eclipse not only the Newton, but even the most powerful consumer desktop computers of the time.
The Newton is an interesting device though, not the least of which because it spawned an entire industry of handheld PDAs. It’s what the Newton exemplifies that is notable. That is, it was the peak of Apple’s prior research and development on portable, slate-like (tablet) computers.
Now that Apple has released the market-leading iPad, with a barrage of other tablet computers and dedicated eReaders flooding the market, it’s worthwhile to look back and see where all of this came from. The focus will be on Apple, and their history with tablet computers.
Apple’s history with tablet computers dates back to at least 1979. A good stock of the following pictures and associated captions/background information are themselves derived from the book, AppleDesign, The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group, by Paul Kunkel/Photos by Rick English (1997).
Roll the curtains…
The Apple Graphics Tablet (1979) – pictured at left – was the beginning of tablet computers at Apple. It’s a crude example of a modern Wacom Tablet. As illustrated in a 1981 Apple Spring Catalogue, “The Apple Graphics Tablet turns your Apple II system into an artist’s canvas. The tablet offers an exciting medium with easy-to-use ”tools” and techniques for creating and displaying pictorial information”. It was developed by Summagraphics, and uses magnetostriction. The built-in alloy wires localize a stylus on the x, y, and z axis points. Software entitled, “Utopia Graphics System”, developed by musician Tod Rundgren, was the paint program that it worked with.
Moving along to 1983…
It was 1983, and a new firm, frog design, was hired by Apple to come up with designs for many of Apple’s new products, both real and imagined. bashful was the start of Apple’s research into ‘true’ tablet computers. frog design was the primary design firm that was responsible for Apple’s Snow White industrial design language used throughout much of the 1980s. It was this new design language at Apple that separated its new products from those products predicated with their old design language.
Apple initiated this new design movement because it wanted to be a world-class computer company with beautiful design. It was truly design first, worry about the engineering later. In fact, many of the designers involved with the designs you are going to see had little-to-no experience designing computers. But they were top designers in their fields.
At a time when the personal computer was in its infancy, it was an ambitious approach to operate this way. Most all other computer companies were led by the constraints of engineering. Things are supposed to be big and ugly first, then beautified much later when the underlying parts become miniaturized and simplified. But Apple sort of took the approach of putting the cart before the horse. Today, Apple carries the same policy: design leads, engineering follows.
The Snow White design language permeated Apple’s products from about 1984 through to the end of the decade. It was characterized by a subtle off white color or light gray (platinum), minimalistic design elements, among others. Examples of products that used this new design language were: the Apple IIc, Macintosh II, Macintosh Portable, and more.
The bashful models, some of the first known Snow White driven designs, were mere concepts. They did, however, lead to more design work on tablet computers.
Inspiration from bashful is seen in both the 24HourMac and the BookMac, in addition to the TelephoneMac, all of which are pictured above. An interesting question in association with BookMac: did Apple get its name for its current line of notebook computers from BookMac? BookMac >> MacBook…
At any rate, while the designs for, in particular, the 24HourMac and the BookMac were underway, Jobs was working to make the flat-panel liquid-crystal display (LCD) a practical reality. Without the technology and means of production, none of these designs had any chance of being produced, since the flat-panel screen was the most important element of each. But the technology was virtually non-existent in the consumer space, other than being on small calculators, and a few early-PDA-like devices.
Jobs was in contact with college drop-out Steve Kitchen, from a small company named Woodside Design in Silicon Valley. Kitchen had invented a flat-panel display, and it was portable and efficient enough to be used in an Apple portable just like the BookMac or the 24HourMac. With word of a tenable flat-panel display technology, a flat-panel design quickly revealed itself at Apple (see picture at left – 1985).
Not long after these designs came to fruition, Jobs presented a working 4 x 4 inch flat-panel display to Apple’s board of directors in 1985. With a $20 million investment, he claimed that he could have 20,000 flat-panel displays coming off the production line, per month, by the second half of 1986. The board turned Jobs down.
But it was a tumultuous time for Jobs, since he was on the verge of being ejected from Apple for a variety of reasons, all at the behest of then CEO John Sculley. By the time 1985 was over, Jobs was no longer working at Apple.
Had Jobs still been in favor at the time, there’s a good chance that he would have not only stayed at Apple, but he would have been granted the money to proceed with his flat-panel display initiatives. If that had been the case, slate-like devices like the BookMac and 24HourMac, in addition to flat-panel desktop displays across all of Apple’s desktop computers, would likely have existed by 1987/88.
That alone would have changed the course of the entire computer industry’s evolutionary timeline. It’s flat panel displays that have made mobile computing possible. Without them, smartphones and tablet computers can’t exist. Thus, mobile computing would have evolved at much faster rates because the centerpiece technology – thin, flat-panel displays – would have existed in forms tenable for manufacturing and consumer use much earlier. Thus, the 1990s would have been a much different decade for computers. It could have been a decade of mobile computing.
And for desktops, it would have been a decade where most all desktop computers came with flat-panel displays. More advanced flat-panel display technology would also have trickled over to cell phones, laptops, and televisions. This, in turn, would have spurred mobile microprocessor development from companies like ARM and Intel.
Even though Apple did have a flat-panel display option for the Apple IIc (pictured at right), it didn’t sell well, and was met with mixed reviews. The technology just needed work, it wasn’t quite ready for prime time yet.
And even though Jobs went on to found another computer company the same year he was ejected from Apple (Next Computer, Inc.), NeXT workstations were themselves devoid of LCDs. Jobs likely would have wanted his NeXT desktops to sport LCDs, but with resource constraints in terms of time and money, it probably wasn’t an option he was able to pursue at the time. Couple this with the fact that other computer manufacturers did not have very many options for flat-panel displays either, the age of the flat-panel display never really happened during the 1980s.
The “P2″ Portable Computer was a concept device developed in 1989. Designed in-house at Apple, the P2 was to be a portable tablet-like device that was easily taken with a user, like a folio bag. Just strap it over your shoulder, make sure the screen protector is in place, and go about your day. The P2 as a concept device has a design heavily influenced, whether intentionally or not, by Alan Kay’s Dynabook (1968).
Figaro was a project code-name within the Apple Newton group associated with a personal digital assistant [PDA] research and development initiative at Apple.
The Knowledge Navigator (pictured at left), an Apple concept tablet computer from 1987, was the archetype of what Apple was trying to create in the beginnings of the Newton project. Later on, however, Apple would opt for a much smaller, simpler design as in the Original Newton MessagePad.
Here is the Knowledge Navigator in action:
Under the Figaro competition, beginning in 1989, a set of designers, both within and outside Apple, were tasked to create designs for a PDA through a friendly competition. The designers had to create designs for a handheld tablet computer, with pen input. Most of them had never designed a computer before. The pen would be used to input information via handwriting or printed strokes. The strokes themselves would be translated into text characters.
The screen was to be a touch sensitive active matrix display. In addition, it would have a built-in hard disk. For wireless data, an IR port was to be built-in, allowing owners of the devices to share data in close proximity to one another through ‘beaming’ their information between devices. Also, a spread-spectrum attachment was to be made available for beaming data across town or across the country. The target price was $6000.
During the first Figaro competition (see image plates below), all designs were assessed, and it was determined, after an internal review at Apple, in addition to focus group testing, that Giugiaro’s work was preferred (top 3 images in below image plate). It was the simple, clean design that won everyone over. Since Giugiaro had previously been hired to work on other projects at Apple, this confirmed to people at Apple that they had made the right choice.
In the follow up Figaro competition later that year (next 2 image plates below), these designs had the most favorable feedback from focus group testing of any previous designs. But Apple was skeptical of the design, as they thought it was too cute, not quite Apple enough.
Sculley then ordered a new design competition for Figaro. This was Part Deux. Wanting to out-design Giugiaro, the Italians, Robert Brunner of Apple’s Industrial Design Group/Lunar Design competed against the February 1990 people’s choice design (pictured directly above). And Brunner’s team designed the concepts for no cost to the Newton Group. They did it on their own time, and at their own expense. It was a rivalry for the ages: Californian designers against Italian designers. Brunner and his team were set on beating them out.
It was now late 1990, and the results of the second Figaro competition were in. The first image plate below contains the Californian design. The notable designs are on the bottom row. The design on the bottom left was a concept for a mid-size PDA (“Newton”), whereas the design on the bottom right was a concept for a larger PDA (“Newton Plus”).
These designs by the Californians were an improvement over previous ones. They sported new shapes and colors, more functional placement of the stylus and the IR window, a unique ribbed pattern on the back of one, and so forth. Even Apple’s lead designers liked Brunner’s designs better than Giugiaro.
But, once again, the focus groups sided with Giugiaro’s designs. The problem was, Brunner’s designs looked too much like Silicon Valley designed computers, whereas Giugiaro’s was simple, unique, compelling, and different. Michael Tchao (head of Newton Marketing), and the rest of the Newton team were set on the design that Newton would eventually ship with (people’s choice award, Giugiaro’s design pictured above – top image plate).
But eventually, the larger designs were not favored by newly acquired Tchao. He had concerns, as did others on the Newton team, that a no-compromise, expensive product would have serious problems gaining any reasonable marketshare. No, it had to be much smaller, and cheaper, which meant all of the work put into Figaro was to be scrapped in favor of newer, more portable designs. But half of those associated with the Newton project at Apple still preferred the Newton Plus, so Tchao, et al. weren’t out of the woods yet.
Giugiaro submitted yet another design at the end of 1990/early 1991, the Montblanc (pictured above), a final Newton Plus design with a gorgeous black exterior and elliptical IR port. But the team was having second thoughts about the IR port. However, it was so integrated into all of the Figaro designs, including Montblanc, that the Newton team was sort of stuck with it. Yet, during the spring of 1991, the team realized that, at a price of between $4-5000, Montblanc was still too expensive and too big, even for the high-end, executive crowd it would have been marketed to. Realizing this, Tchao convinced Sculley to support a “PocketNewt” design over these larger, Newton Plus designs.
Sculley agreed, and the team focussed on a pocketable Newton, named “Junior”. In May, 1992, Newton Plus was officially cancelled. This caused some dissension amongst designers associated with the Figaro project, some resigning from the company. This included Sue Booker, who had not only been a key member of the design team from the beginning of the Figaro initiative, she also had spent several years co-designing an interface for it.
After all of this, a portable version of all of these tablet computers was created (pictured below). It was the favored design over Montblanc. A pre-production design, it was code-named “Batman”. On a cursory viewing, it looks like the Batmobile from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).
On the whole, the Figaro concepts were largely ignored in relation to this new portable design: some three years of research and development, only to find that the design had to be radically different because of the new product specifications. Smaller and lighter were the order of business.
However, the Batman design was still too bulky to fit into Sculley’s pocket, so the design team was ordered to make it smaller. Frustrated, they had the idea to sneak into Sculley’s office and sew his pockets so they were just big enough to fit the Newton. But they went back to work, under tight deadlines, and submitted a revised design, with a more flattened lid and pen, with streamlined corners. It fit.
But because of these size constraints, little details still had to be addressed, like the feeling of using a flat pen. There were several ergonomic issues. It was down to the design team sweating over shaving off points of a millimeter here and there. And it was tiring, especially with such a tight deadline: they were still finishing off the final design, and Newton was supposed to be shipping in just under 5 months.
Yet, more problems abound. The design team was told that the Newton was to have a PCMCIA slot at the top, where users could slide PC Cards into the unit. These cards were to sit flush with the outside of the case. The problem was, some PC Cards would protrude as a matter of their function, even though many at the time did not. These kinds of cards would interfere with the Newton’s hinge below the lid, and would thus not work with the current design.
So, as per the larger picture in the above image plate, they developed a snap-on lid that could be removed and snapped onto the back of the unit, with two rubber protrusions on the top. But during focus group meetings, user’s didn’t really know what to do with the snap on lid, and the rubber protrusions reminded them of nipples. As a result, the lid was removed altogether. As a final design, the final product thus shipped without a screen protector.
Aside from the design problems, the Newton had other issues, most notably software bugs that needed to be fixed before it could be shipped. Its launch-date was delayed: it wouldn’t eventually ship until the summer of 1993.
But tablet computers were still very much in vogue at Apple. But not because of interest from the Newton Group. It was from the Mac Group. They were trying to create tablet computers that were modular, and that could be used as full-blown Mac systems.
Since the Macintosh division, as well as many others at Apple, saw the Newton as something that could very well make desktop computers extinct, they decided to develop a Newton-like Mac. Something that could act like a portable, slate-like device. But, unlike the Newton, these devices would run Mac software, with a full Mac operating system, and work with a keyboard and mouse. It was a bridge between the original Macintosh and the new, mobile powerhouse: the Newton.
The WorkCase, the Macintosh Folio, PenMac, and PenLite were four such concepts to come out of this thinking.
Pictured below is the WorkCase. Not much is known about the WorkCase, other than it being part of a modular desktop computer. It serves as a screen for a complete ‘Juggernaut’ computer system, which includes a modular screen (WorkCase), keyboard, desk station, travel kit, and camera with modular attachment (passport). Since the WorkCase is removable, it presumably serves as a standalone device, functioning like a tablet computer, complete with a touchscreen and stylus.
1992 and holding. The Macintosh Folio (pictured below) revealed itself around the summer of 1992.
The Macintosh Folio was designed by Jonathan Ive, current industrial designer at Apple, who has been a lead designer on such products as the MacBook Air, the iPhone, the iPad, and many others. It featured a touch-sensitive screen, with a built-in battery. Once tilted on its built-in stand, it could be used as a desktop computer with the attachable Folio keyboard.
The PenMac (Folio), (both image plates above), was another concept tablet computer to come out of Apple in the early-1990s. It featured a built-in CD-ROM drive, a user replaceable battery, a large IR port, and a built-in stylus. Not much else is known about it, other than it seemingly being one the most feature-rich tablets of any of the tablet designs to come from Apple during this era.
The PenLite was the closest of any of Apple’s concept/production-ready tablet computers to being shipped. Just before it was being ramped up for distribution, the project was cancelled. It ran the Classic Mac OS, with specialized features for stylus input. However, because the handwriting recognition was not that fleshed out, among other things, Apple decided not to ship it. PenLite, like many other projects of its kind, was cancelled without any real consumer product to be spun off from it.
Also of note is the W.A.L.T. (Wizzy Active Lifestyle Telephone: pictured at left). According to The Apple Museum, it was developed from ~ 1990 – 1993 as a pen-based communication tablet (prototype).
“Designed in cooperation with BellSouth, WALT was a portable screen-based telephone. Aside from telephony, WALT featured an electronic address book, message pad and was able to send faxes. When connected to BellSouth’s ANYWHERE Fax service, WALT could also receive faxes and even reply to them. WALT featured a stylus for easy dialing and writing and also had buttons for the most important functions on front of the device.” (Ref)
Like all of the other tablet computers that Apple researched and developed, W.A.L.T. was never made into a consumer product, and the project was cancelled in 1993.
The VideoPad pictured at right is also worth mentioning. It’s a mash up of a tablet computer, a PDA, a smartphone, and a laptop. It was never a functional prototype. Rather, it was a “dummy” concept device, showcased on August 2, 1993 at the MacWorld show in Boston, the same time that the Newton MessagePad launched.
Bic was another large format Newton concept, but is mostly unheard of. Yet, it’s perhaps the best design out of all of Apple’s tablet designs. Bic was a production-ready design at Apple from March-August, 1993. It had two PCMIA card slots, a retractable I/O door, an IR port, a microphone, a speaker, and a removable battery, all running on an ARM 610 20MHz processor (Ref). The official name as stamped on the lower left front of the case is “MessageSlate”. Not much else is known about this design, other than, based on serial numbers on some units that have revealed themselves on eBay, there were as many as 36 of these in circulation, likely more. But it was never turned into an actual consumer product.
While there’s about a decade gap between Bic and Apple’s beginnings with their research and development on multi-touch tablets and smartphones, there had been some discussion about their exploration of a PDA at the turn of the 20th Century. But there is no real evidence to support the claim that they were seriously researching and developing PDAs.
Moving into more recent times, at right is an illustration from US Design Patent No. D504,899, a Tablet computer related patent Apple filed March 17, 2004. The patent was granted May 10, 2005. It shows a user engaging in touch gestures on a tablet device.
It was around this time that Jobs confirmed in a recent interview on All Things D8 (2010), that Apple started to research and develop a multi-touch-based tablet computer operating system before the iPhone. Once Jobs decided that he wanted to develop a smartphone, the tablet project was put on hold, and available talent and resources were allocated to the iPhone project.
Then, in July of 2008, the USPTO published three Apple API patent applications “related to scrolling, gesturing and synchronization”. The figures in these applications are notable as they illustrate a hybrid tablet/notebook design. Apple was thus experimenting at the time with different implementations of a tablet computer/netbook.
It wasn’t until 2007 though, when the first iPhone launched, that Apple’s tablet computer project was able to get the attention it required in order to eventually move forward into a consumer product. In 2010, Apple finally rolled out its first real tablet computer – the iPad – across several countries. That’s over 30 years after the first Apple Graphics Tablet was launched. The iPad’s launch has been referred to as the most successful consumer-electronics launch ever (according to Bernstein Research analyst Colin McGranahan).
In a segment that has struggled for some twenty years, particularly over the past decade with windows tablets failing in the market, Apple has managed to be a first mover and market leader. It’s a situation akin to the iPod in the MP3 player marketplace: the iPad will likely enjoy a dominant position in the tablet segment of the personal computer market for some time to come.
And the reason the iPad has been successful thus far is because tablet computers are much more functional with tailored, multi-touch operating systems, rather than being based on full-blown desktop systems. LP