iPad: Long and winding road

Anthony Caruana
5 July, 2010
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If you’re in the market for an iPad you either have yours already or are about to get one. So as the lucky ones bask in the glow of the iPad’s LED display we reckon it’s a good time to take a look at how Apple has been moving inexorably towards a tablet computer for over 20 years.

In the beginning. Of course, the iPad isn’t Apple’s first tablet. That distinction belongs to the MessagePad, released in 1993. Interestingly, the MessagePad, running the Newton operating system, offered features that are lamented as missing in the iPad with expansion capability and handwriting recognition.

While the first version of that handwriting recognition came from a Russian company, Newton OS 2.0 had a new system called Rosetta. Even today, OS X includes handwriting recognition – Inkwell – that has been exploited by MacBook modders like Axiotron, which makes the Modbook.

However, the genesis of the MessagePad came years before, during the stewardship of John Sculley when he was CEO of Apple. While many remember Sculley as the man who ousted Steve Jobs from Apple, and the years until Jobs’ return in 1997 as Apple’s darkest days, this was the time where Sculley’s dream of the Knowledge Navigator was born.

The Knowledge Navigator had a diary, email, a touchscreen and the ability to browse online libraries, years before the World Wide Web existed. It opened like a book, but it ran what looked like the Mac OS of the day. In other words, it was a lot like the iPad we see today. You can see the Knowledge Navigator video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGYFEI6uLy0

Between then and now. When Jobs returned to Apple, one of the first things he did was rationalise Apple’s product range. The MessagePad and its cousin the eMate were among the casualties. Although they were regarded as innovative products they weren’t delivering to the bottom line. Some people speculate that Jobs killed them off in an act of spite against the man who fired him years before.

It was at about this time that Apple started to create the foundations of the product range it has today with the all-in-one iMac and funky new iBook hitting the market. At the same time as Apple was rebuilding, the Windows world was seeing the first tablet PCs come to market and the world waited for Apple to follow suit.

However, the wait was several years long as the team in Cupertino was busy with their new iPod.

While all that was going on, speculation was rife that Apple was working on some sort of tablet. Eager beavers dredged through patent applications made by Apple and found all manner of reference material including some diagrams of what looked to be a tablet. There’s little doubt that Apple has been working on a tablet for many years but that they didn’t take one to market as it wasn’t ‘right’.

It wasn’t until 29 June, 2007, that the world got its first glimpse at what would become the foundation of the iPad. The iPhone hit the market.

A star is born. Some derided the iPhone, but almost everyone saw that Apple had created something that redefined how we interact with our mobile devices. The hardware, as well-designed as it was, didn’t really bring anything to the market that no-one had done before. However the user interface was a game-changer.

With the iPhone operating system now in its fourth iteration, the software was mature enough for a new piece of hardware – the iPad. While it does look like a huge iPod touch or iPhone, the new A4 processor, large display and tweaked interface makes the iPad a new type of product – something that we’ll spend the next few months looking at in more depth.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

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