The iPad. Of 2000. As Envisioned in 1988

How a bunch of college students figured out what an Apple tablet should be, twenty-two years before it existed.

By  |  Friday, May 14, 2010 at 2:55 am

In the late 1980s, Apple Computer was better known for fantasizing about breakthrough products than making them. Most famously, CEO John Sculley envisioned a futuristic gizmo called the Knowledge Navigator–featuring a bowtied digital assistant–in his 1987 book Odyssey. It made for a mighty impressive futuristic video.

In September of the same year, Apple announced a competition it called “Project 2000.” Teams from a dozen universities were invited to submit papers about Knowledge Navigator-like concepts representing the PC of far-off 2000. An impressive panel of judges–Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, personal-computing visionary Alan Kay, futurist Alvin Toffler, science fiction legend Ray Bradbury, and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Diane Ravitch–judged the entries in early 1988.

A group from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign won, for a paper titled TABLET: The Personal Computer of the Year 2000. “We seek something which fits comfortably into people’s lives while dramatically changing them,” the entry explained. And then it went on to describe a machine that was as different from the typical portable computer of the era as you could imagine.

The device was about the size of a paper notebook, and it packed a high-resolution color touchscreen with a virtual keyboard, gigabytes of solid-state storage, cellular connectivity, GPS, and a built-in microphone and speaker. Sophisticated software based on UNIX let you tap icons on a desktop and use pop-down menus to use it for note-taking, connecting to online services, driving directions, e-mail (complete with junk-mail filtering), social networking, 3D games, and both network TV shows and wacky user-generated video. Accessories included a wireless keyboard for those who preferred to touch type, and if you lost your tablet, a clever service even let you use the GPS to track it down.

Pretty heady stuff–we’re talking about the second Reagan administration here–but Apple incorporated all these ideas into a slim tablet that went on to be a groundbreaking success.

Oh, okay, Apple didn’t release the tablet in 1988, or even 2000. It waited until 2010, when it unveiled something called the iPad. (You may have heard about it). And I have no reason to think that Apple’s gizmo draws any inspiration whatsoever from the University of Illinois’s concept; in fact, it’s entirely possible that nobody involved with its design, including Steve Jobs, is even aware of Project 2000. (The contest was held when he was off running NeXT–although he returned to Apple in time to have a hand in its real computers of the year 2000.)

But I’m still struck by how close the Project 2000 tablet came to predicting the one Apple would build more than twenty years later. Tech predictions are so tough to get right that even very smart people get them embarrassingly wrong. But the University of Illinois team pretty much nailed every major feature of the device Apple eventually created–right down to “Find My iPad.”

Which is not to say that the 1988 tablet was utterly iPadlike. Some notable ways it differed:

  • It could be controlled via your fingertips, but it also sported a stylus and handwriting recognition.
  • The gigabytes of storage were provided not in fixed form, as in the iPad, but in interchangable memory cards. They sound a lot like SD cards, but were about the size of credit cards and based on optical RAM technology.
  • While the paper does talk about online services hosted by powerful remote computers, it didn’t quite predict the rise of the Web. (It would have been neat if it had–and fitting, given that the graphical Web browser was invented at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign just a few years later.) Instead, the team expected that a lot of databases would be distributed on memory cards and that users would “trade them like baseball cards.”
  • There was a built-in camera–incredible, huh?–for videoconferencing.
  • The tablet connected wirelessly with peripherals not through something like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi but via an infrared connection.
  • It was thick. Really thick. (In the 1980s, the concept of superthin computing devices didn’t exist–Digital’s 1994 HiNote may have introduced it–and the winning Project 2000 team failed to predict it.)
  • Oh yeah–it could multitask apps and run them in windows. (That appears to be Father Guido Sarducci in one of the tiny video windows.)

Those are all minor nits to pick–and in fact, the iPad could include some of these features today if Apple decreed so, and might be a better machine if it did. Absolutely nothing that the paper predicts was wildly unrealistic or worthy of mockery.

The most striking things the team got wrong didn’t involve specs at all. They were about price and timing. Its members thought it would cost much more than an iPad–about the same as a late-1980s PC. (Back then, Toshiba’s T1000 portable cost $999, or around $1900 in 2010 dollars–well over twice as much as even the best-equipped iPad.) And they believed it would be feasible to build the device by 2000, exactly one decade before the iPad became reality.

Would it have been possible to design, build, and sell a computer at least sort of like the one described in the winning Project 2000 entry in 2000? Maybe. At Comdex 2000, Bill Gates demoed the first Tablet PC, another system that bore more than a vague resemblance to the one outlined in the paper–including the stylus and handwriting recognition features which the iPad lacks. But the 2000 Tablet PC didn’t have massive amounts of solid-state storage. Or GPS. Or a cellular modem. Or a camera. All those technologies existed in 2000, but they weren’t standard equipment on any consumer computing device. Apple released the iPad as soon as it was possible to build one that wasn’t hopelessly clunky and pricey.

Okay, enough about the paper–here it is in its entirety. It was a good read in 1988, and is just as captivating –for different reasons–in 2010.

Bonus Project 2000 artifact (thanks, Paleo-Future): A video featuring interviews with the judges and a variety of mocked-up Apple computers which it still hasn’t gotten around to building.

I kind of doubt that Apple would hold an equivalent competition–call it Project 2022–today. (Steve Jobs’ company doesn’t even like to talk about what technology will make possible a few months down the road, let alone a dozen years from now.) But if the authors of the winning 1988 paper–Bartlett Mei, Stephen Omohundro, Arch Robison, Steven Skiena, Kurt Thearling, Luke Young, and Wolfram|Alpha‘s Stephen Wolfram–care to make any predictions, I’d sure listen. Their track record is pretty darn spectacular.



6 Comments For This Post

  1. jbelkin Says:

    Not to be rude but unless they did a mock up in 1940 – hardly anyone with any interest in computers were NOT thinking the form and features and as you point, MS has been at it for 15 years but why HP had to abandon the WIN OS – the opening tablet OS is not hard but MS could not tabletize every nook & cranny of their OS … while Apple just rewrote the book – but of course, with one click, I can fill my tablet – something MS could not come up with.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Sure, people have been talking about tablets forever–and there were even tablety computers prior to 1988. But I’ve read a heck of a lot of old predictions about where PCs were going–and this one was among the most impressive in predicting very specific things that actually came to be.


  3. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    Yeah, this is nicely done. Compare to “Knowledge Navigator” itself … this crew was much more grounded yet dreaming hard.

    You can get an $8 stylus for iPad if you want, so that is not far off either. Handwriting recognition was Doonesburied, but could come in a 3rd party app except nobody wants it. I can’t believe Bill Gates was still talking about it recently in a world of texting. Who doesn’t type? Even 1 fingered you’re faster than writing. I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag today.

    Multitasking is coming of course, in September, in OS v4.1.

  4. robinson Says:

    Fantastic story! Much thanks for doing the research and the engaging writing. Great work. Made my Saturday morning. (Have to go back to grading student paper in a few minutes.)

    One surprising point, which I think needs checking, is the statement “Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Diane Ravitch”. It makes it sound as if she’s a mainstay of EB, but did she even work there? Diane Ravitch is a historian, academic writer, who typically has been a professor somewhere, though at one point, she held a policy job in the Bush White House and for many years was a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

  5. Kennesawga Garage Door Says:

    I found your web log on google and read primarily your other posts. freezing added you to great Google News Reader. Keep up the good work enjoy reading more from you when you need it.

  6. Esteban Says:

    The part that amazes me the post is the idea that this system would run UNIX with "a Postscript interface". This sounds a lot like Mac OS X (and by extension iOS), with its BSD kernel and Quartz Compositor. The UNIX/Postscript combination was being pioneered by Jobs over at NeXT at the time, which makes it all the more amazing, since the idea of Steve returning to Apple was a pipe dream at the time.

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