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Palm founder & tablet godfather Jeff Hawkins: ‘A lot of things had to come together to make the modern tablet’

by Doug Drinkwater

November 1 2013

Jeff Hawkins was one of the founding fathers of tablet computing and so is not surprised by the popularity of iPads and other slates. In fact, he saw it coming as long ago as 1989.

Hawkins has an impressive resume when it comes to all things electronic. Starting out at Intel after graduating from university with an electrical engineering degree, he moved to Grid Systems in 1982 and later founded Palm in 1992, where he worked on Graffiti software, Hotsync synchronization software for HP devices and the highly-rated Palm Pilot MDA.

[The firm later developed webOS – the now open-source operating system for tablets and Internet-connected TVs – some years after Hawkins’s departure.]

But where tablets are concerned, Hawkins’s most poignant work arguably came under his guise of vice president of research at Grid Pad Systems, a role he held in the late 1980s.

It was here that Hawkins was the brains behind the GridPad tablet, which is now just an important footnote in the history of tablet computers.

Developed by GridPad and Samsung in 1989, the monochrome tablet had a transflective screen, a 20 megabyte hard drive disk and was wired to a digital stylus which consumers used to interact with the device (there was no capacitive or even resistive finger touch back in that era). It was the first of its kind to be targeting consumers, although it was also used by the U.S. Army. The price was an eye-watering $3,750.

Perhaps predictably given the price and the infancy of the technology, the tablet had limited success but it did at least serve its purpose. Along with Grid’s further work on the Grid RC and GridPad HD, it would later influence Hawkins’ work on the Palm Pilot and remains one of the very first tablet computers – it came ten years before Microsoft’s Tablet PC and almost 20 before Apple’s first iPad.

(For columns, analyses and opinions about tablets and apps, sign up for the free TabTimes Daily or TabTimes Weekly Best newsletter)

TabTimes reached out to Hawkins earlier this month to speak all things tablets, but he was understandably reticent to do so; Hawkins is now immersed with Grok – a company which focuses on neuroscience -- and he no longer describes himself as an expert in mobile design.

Nonetheless, he decided to talk via email and started by reminiscing on the tablets from the 1980s.

“At the time I started designing the GridPad I was already aware of the product Go was designing and I was aware that Apple was working on a tablet like device too,” he said, referring to Apple’s design before the Newton which never shipped. 

“Everyone was predicting that a pen-interfaced computer would replace the keyboard/mice interface.  This was Go’s belief [and also that of] a start-up company called Momenta.  I didn’t believe that. 

“I believed that, at that time [in] 1989, the tablet opportunity was for vertical markets.  The technology was not ready for consumer uses of pen-based tablets.  The GridPad was designed and positioned for verticals and we had some success.”

The subject of tablet stylus is intriguing, not least because it divides so much opinion. The late Apple chief executive Steve Jobs would regularly dismiss the notion, but users of the more-recent S-Pen stylus from Samsung would stress that a digital pen has its place. Hawkins is unequivocal that the rise of the stylus is down to a number of things.

“Improvements in stylus technology played a tiny role.  Back in 1990, there was no Wi-Fi, no internet, no browsers, no digital cameras, no digital music, no digital movies, no low-power color displays, no Li-ion batteries in consumer products.

“A lot of things had to come together to make the modern tablet or smartphone.”

Despite this – and his original work on forward-thinking mobile devices such as the GridPad and Palm Pilot, the Palm founder has always maintained that smaller form factors would “dominate the future of mobile computing”.

“During the design and rollout of the GridPad I came to believe that in the future mobile computers would be ubiquitous,” he said. “It was the simplicity of the user experience that convinced me. 

“My thinking then was pocket-sized computers would be the dominant form factor, not tablets. It wasn’t that tablet sized devices wouldn’t be big -- but that they would take much longer to become a consumer device.  A pocket-sized device would be less expensive and more convenient.  They would dominate the future of mobile computing. 

Hawkins talks of other tablet barriers too, namely purposeful app development (“most people didn’t believe it – spreadsheets, databases and word processes were the dominant applications for PCs and none of these were suited for a small hand-held computer”), but maintains that he never questioned tablets would end up being successful.

“I am not surprised that tablets are so successful,” he insisted.  “The usage model, the user experience, the app delivery method are all based on the smartphone, and we know how successful they have been.”

However, Hawkins admits that iPads and likeminded tablets have ripped up the rulebook as far as media consumption is concerned.

 “Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is how important a role media plays in the tablet market.   I use a Kindle Fire because of its tight media integration, not because it is a great computer.  The tablet is slowly killing books, TV, and DVDs.  I didn’t see that coming.”

(To learn about how iPad, tablets and apps empower employees and customers, attend TabletBiz conference & expo in New York on Nov. 13. There are still a few free passes for IT managers)

Doug Drinkwater is the International Editor of TabTimes and is based in London, England.
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