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Tablets: a history

From Star Trek to the iPad, and all points in between

The tablet market is growing exponentially, and tablets of various shapes and sizes proliferate on iOS and Google Android. But don't write off Microsoft. Not yet, anyway.

Microsoft and Tablets

Dominant in the desktop space, Microsoft's history with tablets is as long and torturous as its struggles in the mobile sphere. As far back as the early 1990s it introduced a product called Windows for Pen Computing (WPC). A software suite for Windows 3.1 that appended pen input to early Windows x86 tablet PCs. The tablets themselves used vanilla Windows as an OS. WPC let stylus-wielding execs utilise an on-screen keyboard, bark voice memos, or to make handwritten notes. There was even a primitive handwriting-recognition tool so that scrawled notes could be properly digitised (in principle, at least).

Microsoft encouraged software makers to utilise tablet capabilities in their products, and early Windows tablet PCs shipped with pen input capabilities already grafted on. The company improved on the first Windows for Pen when it released a second iteration for Windows 95, and made pen input intrinsic to all of its operating systems from XP forward. Indeed, when the company released XP in 2001, it took the opportunity to define what it thought the term ‘tablet' should mean. It said that Microsoft tablet PCs would be fully functional x86 PCs with pen, handwriting and voice recognition input. Note the lack of touch input, which came along only later.

Microsoft's hardware partners then produced tablet PCs that were little more than laptops with pen input. In time, the company released the dedicated Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. It tried another approach with its Smart Display back in 2002/3, though this was basically a monitor with no standalone functions. It also worked only when tethered to a PC by Wi-Fi or physical connection. Following the moderate success of Tablet PC, however, Microsoft moved things on when it started touting ultramobile PCs in 2006. This made Windows available on small and light touch-centric devices.

Microsoft had spent the decade between the birth of XP and the launch of the iPad evangelising tablets, with little or no impact outside of the enterprise, and vertical industries such as health and construction. And as we can see from the tabletisation of Windows 8, it hasn't given up yet. But unlike Apple, Microsoft is reliant on third parties to design and build its hardware, so while it was promoting tablet and ultramobile PCs, its partners started knocking up cheap netbooks to fulfil their clients' thin and light needs.

Indeed, whether it was coincidence, a spoiler or an unkind irony, a matter of weeks before Steve Jobs announced the iPad Microsoft's Steve Ballmer launched with great fanfare the latest iteration of Windows tablets: the Slate PC, made in conjunction with HP. The Windows-based HP Slate was something of a disaster: appearing after the iPad, only in the US, and making little impact.

Tablets no longer require a separate edition of Microsoft's operating system, and any version of Windows 7 offers handwriting recognition, multitouch input and the rest. Specialist Windows-based Tablet PCs continue to be produced, largely having their niche in business markets. But to be a truly successful tablet, the operating system needs to be built for touch, not merely touch enabled. Windows as it stands is a desktop operating system grafted on to tablet hardware, useful only to those who don't want to cut the Windows apron strings. After all, Apple didn't use OS X on the iPad. But therein lies the hope for Microsoft. What used to be ‘Mac OS X' is now simply ‘OS X', as Apple moves toward merging its desktop and mobile worlds. If Windows 8 is as successful as Microsoft hopes, it could be the first truly tablet?friendly Windows.

Tablets: Other Players

We can't, of course, talk about the evolution of tablet computing without mentioning the iPad. Despite Microsoft's long history trying to develop the platform, it was Apple's device that set the world of tablet computing on fire. By taking the already phenomenally successful iPhone and stretching it to tablet size, Apple turned Microsoft's ideas on their head. Less than 18 months after its launch, the iPad is the dominant player in the tablet market and the device that its competitors want to emulate; both in terms of design, but also sales.

Another major event in the development of tablet computing has been the release of Google's Android 3.x (Honeycomb) operating system. Designed specifically for tablets, it's used on a wide range of manufacturers' tablets. Some, notably HTC and Samsung, successfully put Android 2.x (Gingerbread) on to 7in tablets, while others did so less successfully, with hamstrung software markets being a major bone of contention among early adopters. It's only now, towards the end of 2011, that we are truly seeing a strong array of Android 3.x tablets.

Still, we like to have an eye on the future. Where do we go from here? The 3D ball has started rolling with LG's Optimus Pad, but that is a line which could be explored further. Sony's tablet P is dual screened fold-up tablet. Will that be popular? Will we see innovations like built-in projectors to send content to any blank wall nearby, super quality speakers, support for external games controllers? In five years time will the tablet have done what it threatens to do and killed the netbook market? Will there be households with no traditional computers at all, just tablets and useful peripherals like keyboards?

Matt Egan contributed to this feature

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