“Insanity,” novelist Rita Mae Brown wrote, “is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.” By that standard, the long history of tablet computers doesn’t quite count as insanity–manufacturers have tried a variety of form factors and features over the years. But the results are the same, over and over again: failure. It’s the classic example of a gadget that the industry keeps coming back to and reintroducing with all the hype it can muster–and which consumers keep rejecting.
Today, Apple is announcing its first true tablet. It took the company thirty-four years to get around to it, and it’s just about the only outfit in the business that abstained until now. Whether the device looks brilliant or misbegotten, all evidence suggests that there won’t be much that’s repetitious about it. Even so, it’s worth looking back at more than two decades of attempts to get tablets right–none of which really succeeded, and some of which failed on a monumental scale.
“Tablet” is a squishy term. For the purposes of this story, I’m limiting it to general-purpose computing devices (usually running general-purpose operating systems) aimed at consumers and business professionals. That rules out the two areas where tablet-esque gizmos have found success: PDAs (and their descendants, touch-screen smartphones) and units designed with specialized business applications in mind. But it still leaves numerous platforms and devices to contemplate. And the list that follows is far from comprehensive.
Grid Systems GRiDPAD (1989)
Distinguishing characteristics: 10-inch monochrome screen, tethered pen; 1MB of RAM, two memory card slots, and a proprietary network interface. Ran MS-DOS with proprietary pen extensions.
Original price (including software): about $3,000
The critics speak: “I was quite impressed by the pen interface and how easy it is to learn.”–Rod Chapin, InfoWorld
What happened: By tablet standards, the GRiDPAD—-which was designed for businessy applications such as data collection in the field—-was well reviewed and seems to have sold reasonably well. But AST (which bought GRiD Systems from Tandy, which had acquired it in 1988) ran into trouble in the mid-1990s. When it collapsed, the GRiDPAD disappeared.
Relevant factoid: The GRiDPAD was an early creation of Jeff Hawkins, who went on to sell more pen-based devices than anybody else when he founded Palm and invented the PalmPilot.
The Momenta Computer (1991)
Distinguishing characteristics: 10-inch transflective monochrome screen, detachable keyboard, flip-up screen, tethered pen. Ran MS-DOS with proprietary pen extensions based on Smalltalk; came bundled with pen-based word processor, spreadsheet, and communications applications.
Original price: $4,995
The critics speak: “Every time I look at the Momenta or use it, I think it should be knocking my socks off. But in actual use, the compromises of its design keep getting under my skin.”–Rafe Needleman, InfoWorld
What happened: Momenta started out as one of the most-hyped startups of the early 1990s, but its machine–innovative though it may have been–was slammed for being overpriced and underpowered. After burning through $40 million, laying off most of its staff, and making multiple changes in leadership–and only around ten months after its product hit the market–the company closed up shop in August of 1992.
Relevant factoid: Momenta founder Kamran Elahian started successful companies before and after, but chose to keep MOMENTA as the license plate on his Ferrari as a sign of humility.
Compaq Concerto (1992)
Distinguishing characteristics: 9.5-inch monochrome display, handle that doubled as stand, detachable keyboard. Ran Windows for Pen Computing, Microsoft’s first unsuccessful attempt to give Windows a tablet interface.
Original price: $2,499
The critics speak: “My only really happy pen-based experience has been with Compaq’s unique Concerto…”–Kevin Strehlo, InfoWorld
What happened: The Concerto was one of numerous tablets from the early 1990s that had everything going for it except for the general disinterest of the PC-buying public. Compaq responded to disappointing sales by slashing the Concerto’s price by $1,000. Then it discontinued the system altogether in 1994.
AT&T Eo 440 Personal Communicator (1993)
Distinguishing characteristics: 5.9″ by 4.3″ transflective monochrome screen, pen, optional cellular phone/modem module (with handset that sat on top of the screen). Ran Go’s PenPoint operating system.
Original price: Around $3,000 for a fully-loaded model. (There was a $1,599 bare-bones version, but it didn’t even have enough memory to run the e-mail program.)
The critics speak: “The Eo Personal Communicator, from Eo Inc. and AT&T, is a pen-based computing device of staggering technical achievement. But I wouldn’t buy one.”–Mark Stephens, InfoWorld
What happened: AT&T reportedly burned through $40-$50 million to buy Go, the company that created the PenPoint pen operating system, and Eo, its hardware spinoff. After the gadget flopped, Ma Bell decided to refocus its energies on devices that packed similar functionality into a more phone-like shape–which was a visionary move considering that smartphones didn’t exist yet. But months later, in July of 1994, it just gave up.
Relevant factoid: Jerry Kaplan, cofounder of Go and Eo, wrote about the companies’ short, ill-fated life in his Silicon Valley classic Startup. It’s still in print.