The iPad is Not a New Idea

The notion of a casual computer (as my colleague Mark Rolston described the iPad to the Wall Street Journal) is actually not a new one. Companies of all shapes and sizes have been trying to figure it out for quite a long time (including Steve Jobs and Apple…since 1983). It’s only now that the technologies required to make it happen have become ubiquitous and cheap enough to make it feasible: wireless and wi-fi, good large touchscreens, low-power but powerful chips, web browsing and email embedded into everyday (everyhour) life, and long-lived batteries.

[Photos by Mark Serr]

I actually worked on a precursor to the iPad back in 1999 or so (I also designed the original iPhone, but that’s another story). This was for a start-up called Qubit, and it only got to prototype stage, but it was fun while it lasted. Even back then it was easy to see that a small tablet could make computing feel much less like work and much more like reading a magazine - something done in spurts and interruptible by family needs.

The intention of the Qubit tablet was actually quite similar to the iPad - casual web and email. Of course back in 1999, the web was still new for a lot of people, and email was not nearly the firehose that it is today. IM, social networking, photo sharing and music streaming were either just for teen early adopters or non-existent. Wi-fi was just starting to become more common in homes, but data usage over wireless was a foreign concept. So the use-case for it was a harder sell, especially at the high price the tablet would have to have sold for given it’s “large” 7-inch or so LCD.

High quality large capacitive touchscreens didn’t exist then, so we had to use a stylus, like a Palm. I designed this little “inkwell” on the side that held the pen either flush to the case, or tilted out for ready usage.

Because the touchscreen was limited, gestures to swipe pages was impossible. Hard buttons to easily scroll, a la Kindle, were used instead, placed where the user’s thumb would be. Because of the hassle of the stylus, we tried to make as much of the high-usage functionality as possible quickly accessible with buttons, without overloading the device with too much complexity.

Like the iPad, the Qubit was intended as a supplement to a desktop or laptop computer. At 1999 prices this was not an attractive proposition. But he question still remains today - if someone has dropped $1500+ on a MacBook, $200+ on an iPhone (plus ~$70/month for fees), will they also be up for spending another $500+ (plus perhaps $30/month in fees) for the times when they don’t feel like pulling out the laptop or the iPhone is just too small?

Only time will tell.