The Long Fail: A Brief History of Unsuccessful Tablet Computers

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

“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.

Relevant factoid: Concerto must be one of the most-used monikers in tech history. It’s also been used for an add-on for Lotus Symphonycall-center software, and a Netscape plug-in.

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.

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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?

    http://lawandesalil.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/ireject/

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  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 something..as 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 longevity.lol

  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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