The Long Fail: A Brief History of Unsuccessful Tablet Computers

By  |  Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 3:04 am

Dauphin DTR-1 (1993)

Distinguishing characteristics: Pen input; both a removable mini-keyboard and a PS2 jack for a full-sized keyboard; low-power 486SLC processor; ran Windows 3.1; weighed a trim 2.2 pounds.

Original price: $2,500.

The critics speak: “Although the DTR-1 has limitations, it still makes great strides in merging mobile and desktop computing.”–Jeff Symoens, InfoWorld.

What happened: With the DTR-1, Dauphin hoped to take on Apple’s Newton PDA with a full-blown (albeit tiny) PC. The unit flopped, forcing the company to declare bankruptcy. It then recovered and released a follow-up machine called the DTR-1, then another tablet called the Orasis; they also failed.

Relevant factoid: Dauphin is still in business, sort of. After a series of corporate maneuvers I don’t fully understand, it acquired a biotech firm called GeoVax, renamed itself after the company it had just bought, and reinvented itself as an AIDS research company.

Microsoft WinPad, also known as Microsoft at Work for Handhelds (1994, sort of)

Distinguishing characteristics: Well, devices based on WinPad were supposed to use a Polaris chip with a 386 core and run a Windows 95-like OS called Microsoft at Work which was also supposed to power copiers, fax machines, and TVs. But they never shipped.

Original price: Microsoft wanted WinPad devices to cost around $500. But did I mention they never shipped?

The critics speak: “They have had trouble with the pen interface and fitting Windows down.”–analyst Jesse Berst, as quoted in InfoWorld.

What happened: Microsoft convinced Compaq, Motorola, NEC, Olivetti, Sharp, and Zenith to agree to make WinPad-based devices. Then it admitted it was having trouble making the OS work. And then it gave up.

Relevant factoid: After scrapping WinPad, Microsoft started from scratch and built Windows CE, the basis for what eventually became Windows Mobile.

Tablet PC (2002)

Distinguishing characteristics: An array of screen sizes and form factors, including convertibles (which included standard QWERTY keyboards) and slates (which don’t). All use a pen-driven version of Windows.

Original price: The first Tablet PCs, which shipped in 2002, cost from around $2,000 to $2,500.

The critics speak: “It’s a cool demo, a conversation starter in airports and on planes, and truly amazing technology. Whether its a solution looking for a problem will be decided by the market, however, and I’ll be interested to see how it turns out.”–Paul Thurrott, SuperSite for Windows.

What happened: Tablet PCs still exist, and most of the people who I’ve run into who own one seem to like them. But at Comdex 2001, Bill Gates famously predicted they’d be the most popular PCs in America within five years. Instead, they’ve eked out an existence without ever thriving. Manufacturers jinxed them by initially offering sluggish models at high prices; Microsoft seemed to give up on the idea before it ever figured out how to make it compelling. I have an additional theory on the Tablet PC’s failure: Most people have no particular desire to store handwritten notes when QWERTY input is faster and far easier to read.

Relevant factoid: Okay, not a fact so much as a question: I wonder if even Bill Gates carries a Tablet PC these days?

PepperPad (2004)

Distinguishing characteristics: 8.5″ touchscreen flanked by split keyboard; built-in stand; ran Linux.

Original price: $849

The critics speak: “…the PepperPad home Internet tablet is underpowered and overpriced. Get a laptop instead.”–Sascha Segan,

What happened? Pepper Computer’s PepperPad launched at the DEMOMobile show in 2004 and went through multiple iterations, but it was never clear just why you wanted one–especially at a notebook-like price. It’s aggressively odd split QWERTY keyboard probably didn’t help, either.  The company folded last September.

Ultra-Mobile PC (2006)

Distinguishing characteristics: This Microsoft platform repurposed Windows XP Tablet Edition for undersized devices with pen-driven touchscreens; they don’t have traditional keyboards, but do sometimes sport PepperPad-style split key layouts.

Original price: Samsung’s Q1, one of the first UMPCs, started at $1,099.

The critics speak: “The 4.8-inch screen’s 1024×600 resolution is sharp, but renders text so tiny that anyone over the age of 30 will not be able to read it.”–Gizmodo, on the WiBrain B1E.

What happened? Microsoft’s viral pre-marketing campaign, using the code-name “Origami,” managed to stir up plenty of interest in UMPCs before anyone knew exactly what it was. But the concept seemed to be hanging on by its toenails from virtually the moment the first machines shipped. The hardware is often too wimpy to run Windows very well, and Microsoft did precious little to rethink the OS’s interface for PCs with tiny screens and no traditional QWERTY, As I write this, UMPC is–just barely–still extant. But Microsoft has moved on to yet another tablet variant: the “Slate PC.”

Relevant factoid: When Asus started the netbook boom with its first Eee PC, some folks considered the undersized laptop to be a new kind of UMPC. No, not really–the Eee PC was a hit because it removed all the features that made UMPCs weird and kept most of the ones that make notebook computers popular.

A few hours from now, the world will finally be able to form intelligent opinions about the Apple tablet and its chances of success. I’ll express some of my own after our live coverage of Apple’s event–and would love to hear yours…




22 Comments For This Post

  1. Rick Sala Says:

    I would argue that you should have included Apple’s Newton Message Pad. I actually still own several versions of the device, including one of the clearcase prototypes of the Message Pad 120.

    The device itself of course recieved a bad wrap for its handwritting recognition. The problem with the recognition was not the OS, but the fact that Apple used whole word recognition, which in theory would work great, however Apple only included a 5000 word dictionary on the device. If you took the time to add words to the dictionary, after a few days you could pretty much get 100 percent recongition. I would argue this was actually better than Palms approach, and I have own many Palm devices as well.

    What doomed the Newton was the fact that at the time there was no 3G data network. I had a modem/fax card that made it somewhat usable as a communications tool, but without the networking, it was simply a device ahead of its time.

    The original Casio branded version of the device was probably the best form factor for any of the pad type devices. It wouldn’t fit in your shirt pocket. But it would easily fit in a coat pocket or a woman’s purse, and it was comfortable to hold in your hand. That form factor would work great today with a stylus and color screen.

  2. Tech Says:

    But you have to remember Apple does everything really well. Their tablet may be a turning point.

  3. siberian Says:

    reading this on fujitsu stylistic 5020 tablet) the best forgotten secret of 2004. dual-boot freebsd/xp. happy.

  4. ♥pixel8design♥ Says:

    Yeah I think because a company like Apple took the risk to introduce this, the door’s been opened in the touch-screen world. I can only imagine the chatter if Windows introduced a tablet first.

    Right now I don’t see the functionality or usefulness of the iPad (and really, the name is awful), but I think in time we’ll look back and see it as an avenue or channel for some really amazing things in the future.

  5. Marathi News Says:

    Apple has always been a trendsetter in this space. The new so called tablet (IPAD) is far superior to what was on offer earlierr. The earlier tablets were just laptops which had the ability to turn the screen around and take notes.

    This one is a lot more with Iphone features and capabilities and I am sure this will be a hit.

  6. slamdunk Says:

    Interesting post and thanks for the history lesson.

  7. Lakia Says:

    WOW… I had no idea these types of computers dated back to 1989! This is interesting…

  8. salil Says:

    iReject -the iPad. Its good. I might be proved wrong because even portable music players were around when the iPod was introduced. However do we really require another device like this to lug around?

  9. azizmoummou Says:

    I shall ask,in a world of vices , where can a virtue stand?

    thank u,

  10. SuJin Says:

    iPad. It’s basically a blown up iPhone without the camera. For the price it’s at, I’d just buy the iPhone and keep it in my pocket instead of needing to carry my phone in a briefcase.

    I was really hoping we’d get a tablet “computer” that would run Snow Leopard or an artist and an Apple user, I was excited, now I just feel let down.

    Dear Apple. Please rethink the iPad.

  11. Bry Says:

    Thanks for this post! I was looking for a good summary of the past… the moment I heard about the iPad saying… its been done. Granted not in apples i style, but the tablets been around for a while. I’m interested to see how this fairs.

  12. pt4themind Says:

    I had know clue that these machines ever existed. Seems as if the etchasketch had greater

  13. Borg Wizard Says:

    Ah the blasts from untethered world and before WiFi – so notable mnetions should include Qubit who actually patented the form factor – derived the notion of the walled garden on a device and was in CES keynote by Sun in Whirlpools fridge of the future including disneyland’s home of the future – now long past and again a pioneer with arrows in the back.

    Then DT who actually commercialized tablets on Qubit designs whereby we sold 000’s of these for specialized home control use. Apps sell hardware.

  14. nom Says:

    Why not include the Newton in the list (other than a reference to it as PDA) the AT&T thing looks to be PDA like

  15. computer consultant Says:

    You’ve got to fail plenty of times before you get it right. At some point, they’ll get it right. And I believe we’re closer than we think. Did you see the cool ones used in Caprica? They’re made of disposable paper. I want that.

  16. bluscarab Says:

    The long fail?? So what do you think is mounted in all those police cars that pull you over? Or those nurses carrying that thing around? Jump in a taxi lately? Fly on commercial airlines? On private jets? On single engine? Those touch screens in there providing flight plate approach instructions are not exactly displaying screensavers.

    I work in a company that installs this stuff worldwide and TabPCs have been used for everything from in-car entertainment and trucking industry all the way to commercial avionics, military combat vehicles and in-plane guided missile systems over Iraq.

    Are you headed for the Olympics? Tabs are the standard toolkit for the athletes. Defusing a makeshift bomb or landmine? The Tab Cobra is gonna help save your life. Targeting taliban from an F-15 with no digital acquisition system? The Tab will verify and acquire target lock for you in real time.

    How about an ambulance ride? Its in there to keep you alive. Remember that when you finally get to ride on one.

  17. Milton Keynes Web Design Says:

    Very interesting stuff… Hard to believe how technology has changed over the years…

  18. Milton Keynes Web Design Says:

    Interesting points made. Think how much technology has evolved over the past 50 years and think what things will be like in the future!

  19. kitchenaid mixer Says:

    Wow we had tablets dating back to 1989? Had no idea these machines even existed. Its amazing how much technology has advanced over the years.

  20. Boil Treatment Says:

    We need tablets in the medical field, the construction field and so many others. This opens up a whole new market.

  21. Kennesawga Garage Door Repair Says:

    I found your blog on google and read several of your other posts. i added you to my personal Google News Reader. Keep up the good work expect reading more from you sometime soon.

  22. Cliff Feldman Says:

    It's funny how memory is now in such abundance compared to before. And now that we have a lot of it, we want more because we are used to too much memory it seems with our non-mobile devices. Also, so much for the pen thing right?

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