With the advent of Apple computer’s latest tablet, called the iPad, it’s useful to recall that in the early 1980s, a San Francisco industrial design firm called Frog Design helped create some early prototypes of tablets for Apple Computer’s young Steve Jobs. Now we learn that Frog Design has discovered some extraordinary photos from its archives that show what the tablet might have looked like more than twenty-five years ago.
With Apple expected to unveil its long-awaited tablet device today, Wednesday, Jan. 27th, it somehow seems appropriate that we revisit history. Some of these photos are shown below, courtesy of “This Old Mac.” The sheer number of these various prototypes shows how much Apple’s founders apparently thought about bringing a tablet to market.
In 1983, Frog Design created the “Bashfuls” in reference to the dwarf in the fairy tale Snow White. Bashful was created alongside the Apple IIe as an extension of the Snow White industrial-design language used by Apple during 1984-1990, and which continued with several Macintosh models. The firm later designed Sun’s SPARCstations in 1986 and the famous NeXT Computer in 1987. Frog Design also helped create the Apple IIc, the fourth in its very successful Apple II line of personal computers.
Apple Tablet prototype from around 1983, which looks similar to the Apple IIc.
As you can see, there are none of the sleek contours that characterize Apple’s products today. But you can still see the emphasis on ease-of-use and a (relatively) slim profile.
Variations of the Bashful tablet included one with an attached keyboard and one with a floppy-disk drive and a handle for portability. Some of the tablet prototypes included a stylus. And one concept even had an attached phone. Having been developed as a prototype in 1993, this was a PowerBook Duo Tablet Computer codenamed PenLite.
Codenamed "PenLite," Apple developed its prototype of the PowerBook Duo Tablet Computer in 1993.
According to This Old Mac:
“The Macintosh PowerBook Duo Tablet computer was a combination of a PowerBook Duo computer and a Tablet PC. It had a stylus pen, backlit display, vertically built-in floppy drive and ran standard MacOS software. The PowerBook Duo Tablet could also be connected to the Duo Docks and accessories. The project was canceled in 1994 before the introduction of Newton Message Pad 100. Apple felt that it would be too confusing to have different pen-driven tablet computers.”
This reminds me so very well of the Digital PDP-1 computer, which also used a stylus. It would appear that Apple considered this technology readily adaptable to the prototypical tablet.
One of the very formative designs stated “Graphics Tablet” on its margin, and has a memory card dated 1979.
The 1983 Apple IIe "Graphics Tablet." The interface card is dated 1979, making it in many ways the earliest Apple tablet prototype.
For a variety of reasons, the “Bashfuls” never made it to market, and one can only guess as to their whereabouts today. In all likelihood, both Frog Design and Apple (both still extant), have them squirreled away somewhere.
A summary of the initial decision to postpone marketing tablets, and why their re-appearance should make life easier for the average consumer:
Apple has always been keen on developing tablet technology, and their original research into the subject was prescient; but in the end, they decided on smaller, handheld devices as in the Newton – a forerunner of the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) – instead of full blown Tablets.
First, Apple did not have an operating system that was touch friendly. At the time, the Classic OS was still developing, and the Newton [message pad] project had its own problems (for one, its size was comparable to a brick). The Newton also had several cumbersome accessories, as shown below:
Three Newton MessagePad devices with keyboard and LinearFlash PCMCIA memory card accessories. (image courtesy Magnus Manske).
However, it would seem that with the arrival and extraordinary popularity of the iPhone, this hurdle has been cleared,
As for additional theories, from This Old Mac:
“In order for the Tablet to be marketable, they probably thought that they would have to make their own custom OS for it, like they did with the Newton: not an easy task, and something that would take years to develop. But human resources at Apple were limited, since the Classic OS was in desperate need of a refresh, since Microsoft won the Windows copyright/patent battle with Apple and launched their own full-blown Windows OS in 1993: their efforts were focused on just keeping their home computer market alive.
“Second, a bad economy… Apple was already into the Newton project for many millions, and taking another substantive risk with a new breed of computers was likely not something the Board would have entertained.
“Third, the public was likely not ready to accept Tablet computers. Of course, all was not lost, as the research and development from these Tablet projects surely contributed to the Newton’s evolution, and set a foundation at Apple for future projects of similar kind.”
It would appear then that Apple’s current tablet is just the next step in the evolution of the laptop. It has been widely suggested that the tablet’s mobility is a chief reason for its appeal. It can be transported places where a laptop would be both cumbersome and impractical, and its touch technology could offer a facility of use that is pleasant and easy – Kindle or eRead devices come to mind – not to mention GPS devices such as the Garmin. However, it will certainly have Apple’s classic attention to visual appeal. It will likely be a shiny, industrial grade of aluminum, perhaps with the glowing Apple logo on the back, and both thin and light – permitting ease of transport. Think of a portable office. Yet another way in which the history of high tech is influencing the future.
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