Brief history of the iPad: Rumors

Steve Jobs’ Denial

Steve Jobs appeared at the first D: All Things Digital Conference in 2003 with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossgerg. It was six years after Steve’s return to Apple after forming NeXT. Pixar, which Steve purchased from George Lucas in 1986 (then called The Graphics Group), had released five wildly successful movies: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo (still my favorite). Shortly after returning to Cupertino, Steve killed a number of projects, including the Newton, Apple’s foray into the PDA market and its second pen-driven tablet device.

However, the Newton project’s cancellation didn’t extinguish interest in an Apple-branded PDA, especially one developed under Steve’s supervision. Even Jobs himself seemed to dream of one:

“I think that, to me, what I want is this little thing that I carry around with me that’s got a keyboard on it, because to do email, you need a keyboard. Until you perfect speech recognition, you need a keyboard. You don’t sit there and write stuff, you need a keyboard. And you need to be connected to the net. So if somebody would just make a little thing where you’re connected to the net at all times, and you’ve got a little keyboard, like an eMate with a modem in it. God, I’d love to buy one. But I don’t see one of those out there. And I don’t care what OS it has in it. So, you know, I don’t want a little scribble thing. But that’s just me.”

That’s why you can’t blame Mossberg for asking Steve about the possibility at All Things D in 2003:

“Walt Mossberg: A lot of people think given the success you’ve had with portable devices, you should be making a tablet or a PDA.

Steve Jobs: There are no plans to make a tablet. It turns out people want keyboards. When Apple first started out, people couldn’t type. We realized: Death would eventually take care of this. We look at the tablet and we think it’s going to fail. Tablets appeal to rich guys with plenty of other PCs and devices already. I get a lot of pressure to do a PDA. What people really seem to want to do with these is get the data out. We believe cell phones are going to carry this information. We didn’t think we’d do well in the cell phone business. What we’ve done instead is we’ve written what we think is some of the best software in the world to start syncing information between devices. We believe that mode is what cell phones need to get to. We chose to do the iPod instead of a PDA.”

That’s as flat a denial as you’ll get from Steve or anyone else.

1983

Last week I explored a brief history of pen-driven tablet devices that pre-dated the iPad. Today I’ve got one more, though it never got out of the design stage. In 1983, Apple tapped Frog Design, headed by Hartmut Esslinger, to develop a new design language for its products. Dubbed the “Snow White design language” (referring to the seven projects, or “seven dwarves,” to which the new rules would be applied), it emphasized the use of horizontal and vertical lines for ventilation and decoration. A brief visual history of Esslinger’s Mac prototypes can be seen here.

Frog and Apple worked on the Apple IIc, among others, including this prototype design for a tablet PC. This little lovely, called the “Bashful,” features a full-sized keyboard and a stylus. It went through several design iterations, three of which you can see at WIRED. As Engadget points out, this suggests that Apple had been playing with the idea of a tablet device for 26 years.

Pre-rumors

Shortly before rumors of a tablet began in earnest, then Apple CEO Steve Jobs appeared at an AllThingsD Conference on June 7, 2004, a little more than a year after the iTunes Music Store debuted. Fans wanted to know what was next and it wasn’t long before someone mentioned a PDA. Interestingly, it was Jobs himself.

At one point, Jobs noted that he was proud of what Apple had shipped, as well as the products it decided not to ship. When asked about what Apple hadn’t shipped, Jobs said, “an Apple PDA.” During the Q&A, a Treo-brandishing audience member asked Jobs for a PDA/phone hybrid from Apple. Jobs told him to hang on to his Treo.

This is interesting in hindsight because, as we’ll see in the next section, Apple applied for trademark referring to a “handheld computer” just 10 months later. Also, Jobs would admit on that very same stage in 2010 that Apple began working on the iPad before the iPhone. Barron’s:

“As noted, Jobs said the company actually was working on a touch-screen tablet – the iPad – but decided to first apply the technology to the mobile phone market, and so launched the iPhone first.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On to the rumors. 1

2004

Apple filed for a European design trademark in May, 2004 with Leeds, UK patent and trademark attorneys Urquhart-Dykes and Lord. The paperwork referred to a “handheld computer” and sketches of what The Register described as “…an iBook screen minus the body of the computer.”

Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive were listed in the paperwork, as well as other members of the industrial design team, like Daniele De Iuliis and Richard Howarth. This same group had contributed to the Power Mac G5, iPod, 17in and 12in PowerBook G4.

The Register went on to make a pretty good guess at would such a device could do for home users:

“…we might be seeing an ‘iMac Jr.’ in the not too distant future, equipped to work with both iTunes – and perhaps other iLife apps, such as iPhoto – and AirPort Express to deliver Mac-stored music, photography and video wirelessly to your hi-fi and TV.”

2005

There were two standout rumors in 2005, the first coming in May. The Mac Observer (TMO) noted that Apple was apparently granted the Leeds patent it sought in 2004, as noticed by The Register. TMO pointed out that the filing referred to an “electronic device” and even compared it to an “HP Compaq Tablet PC.” In addition to the images discovered by The Register, the 2005 patent papers included the image below of a person holding a device and touching it with one finger, as if it had a touch screen.

Slashdot’s commenters went berzerk, writing gems like, “…how big is the market for a niche product from a niche computer manufacturer?” and “[Apple’s] design is for a finger touch screen. This would make for perhaps a better interface than pen for something simple like an ebook or portable video player (a video ipod allowing you rent DRMed movies from Apple :-), but not so useful as an art / design machine (my understanding is that to have both pressure-sensitive pen and finger, you would need two separate, difference hardware systems on the screen, which would be expensive)…I doubt this tablet is going to be marketed as a mac. It may contain a mac, but it’s going to take aim at more specialized tasks.” Nice guess there, -Harlequin-.

In August, Engadget noticed that Apple was looking to hire a handwriting recognition engineer. The job posting, which is no longer online, of course, described Apple’s desire for a candidate who is “…“passionate about providing handwriting solutions to end customers” and who believes that “using a stylus and a tablet is the way to interact with computers.” It could be that Apple was looking for someone to work on Inkwell, the handwriting recognition software introduced with Mac OS X Jaguar in 2002.

Again, that’s funny in retrospect because, when Steve Jobs was introducing the iPhone two years later, he stated in no uncertain terms that “Nobody wants a stylus.”

2006

There was more fun with patent filings in February, 2006. MacRumors noticed an interesting one dated January 31, 2005, which mentions gestures, touch-sensitive input, touch-sensitive electronic electronic apparatus and visual expander. The section regarding gestures describes “…reading data from a multipoint sensing device such as a multipoint touch screen where the data pertains to touch input with respect to the multipoint sensing device, and identifying at least one multipoint gesture based on the data from the multipoint sensing device.”

A subsequent post from Hrmph! contained illustrations depicting several now-familiar gestures, like pinch, zoom and swipe. It’s getting real now!

2007

At this point we’re just two years from release. In November, ASUS supposedly told CNET that it was “helping Apple build a Tablet PC.”. CNET’s chatty sources must have clammed up quick because they provided no additional details or any hard evidence.

2009

Let’s skip 2008 and jump right to 2009. The year before the iPad’s release was full of rumors and questions from observers and pundits who sensed what was coming. I’m going to highlight two.

In October, ZDNet asked, “Can Apple make a Tablet PC cool?” It was a valid question. Back then, tablets were hardly the sleek and desirable machines we’re used to in 2012. For example, consider this image posted by MacRumors in 2011 (at left).

Before the iPad, many tablets were used by those in specialized professions as well as gadget geeks who liked playing with the newest thing. None enjoyed the mass ma-and-pa appeal that the iPad maintains today. So it’s not surprising that ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes wondered how yet another tablet device could be cool, regardless of the manufacturer:

“I really can’t see how to make a Tablet PC cool. How do you integrate a tablet into your daily life? You can’t tuck it into a pocket, which is a major drawback, so you’re stuck lugging something around either under your arm or in a case. All of a sudden you have all the hassles of a notebook or netbook, with the added hassle that there’s no clamshell protecting the screen from abuse. In theory, Tablet PCs seem like a cool idea, but outside of a few really small niches, tablets have more downsides than up.”

Indeed, that was a question that caused many would-be early customers (the folks left after the wave of early adopters had slowed) to pause: what would I do with it? Plus, it is less portable than a smartphone. Kingsley-Hughes is right, you can’t pop an iPad into a pocket. Today I’d argue that he was making the wrong comparison. The iPad wasn’t meant to replace the smartphone, but the laptop. It’s less convenient to lug around than an iPhone, but much easier than a heavy laptop.

Still, Kingsley-Hughes had faith in Apple’s ability to work its magic:

“But then again, if Apple can make lugging a tablet around with you seem cool, then they could sell in the millions.”

Later that year, WIRED showed off video concept of a tablet edition of its magazine. Its parent company Condé Nast showed off the concept of an “iTablet” edition of WIRED during a promotional event in 2009. Those who’ve read the iPad version of WIRED will realize that it looks an awful lot like the images in this video. It seems Condé Nast put quite a tease right in front of our noses (Turn the volume down on this video. The music is really annoying).

2010

The year we make contact. When Jobs introduced the iPad on January 27, 2010, he talked about a “third category of device” between the laptop and the iPhone. Before we get to that, there’s one more rumor I want to mention.

The day before Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPad, McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw told CNBC that the Apple tablet would be available “tomorrow.” Of course, we knew there would be a press event by then, but the iPad was still hush-hush. You’ll remember that McGraw-Hill was among the original publishers to get on board with iBooks, and that was what McGraw alluded to when talking with CNBC:

“Erin Burnett: ‘Briefly, before we go…Apple. Apparently you may get textbooks on the…the, this new tablet? That’s coming out.’

Terry McGraw: ‘Yeah! Very exciting. Yes. You know, they’ll make their announcement tomorrow on this one. We have worked with Apple for quite awhile. And their…the tablet is going to be based on the iPhone operating system and so it’ll be transferable. So what you’re going to be able to do now. We have a consortium of e-books. And we have 95 percent of all our materials that are in e-book format…on that one. So now, with the tablet you’re going to open up the higher education market, the professional market. The tablet…the tablet is going to be just really terrific.”

I’ll pick up the rest of the story at the juncture of liberal arts and technology, next time.

Did you enjoy this? Don’t miss part one: prologue.

  1. Understand that the vast majority of rumors are bunk and not worth discussing. In this post, I focus on the ones that were actually meaningful in the history of the iPad, in one way or another.