NEW YORK NEW YORK For decades, the tablet computer was like a miragein the technology industry: a great idea, seemingly reachable onthe horizon, that disappointed as hopeful companies got closer.Microsoft has experienced this cycle of hope and disappointmentmany times. The device unveiled by the Redmond Wash.-based software giant lastweek the Surface isn’t the first tablet it envisioned. Indeed,the company’s engineers have been trying to reshape personalcomputing for as long as there’s been a PC. The first PCs had keyboards, borrowed from the typewriter. Butpeople quickly started wondering whether pens, which are morecomfortable writing tools, wouldn’t be a better basis for personalcomputing.

Several companies worked pen-based computing in the late 1980s, andMicrosoft jumped on the trend. By 1991, it released “Windows forPen Computing,” an add-on to Windows 3.1 that let the operatingsystem accept input from an active “pen” (really a stylus). Severaldevices used Microsoft’s software, and are recognizable as theancestors of today’s tablets: They were square, portable slabs witha screen on one side. They weren’t designed to respond tofinger-touches, however: the reigning paradigm was that of thenotepad and pen.

The pen-computing fad subsided in the ’90s. While PenWindowstablets got a lot of attention, mainstream computing remainedstubbornly keyboard-based. In 2002, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said these early tabletventures were “almost painful to recall,” but not to worry. He hadsomething much better, a device that would fulfill “a dream that Iand others have had for years and years,” he said.

It was Windowsfor XP Tablet PC Edition. This time, hardware makers likeHewlett-Packard Co., Samsung Electronics, Toshiba Corp. and AcerGroup played along, producing tablet PCs. Like the earlier generation, some of these looked like today’stablets, but inside, they were really PCs. Compared with an iPad,they were expensive at around $1,500 heavy, and didn’t lastlong on battery power.

Buyers paid a lot for the ability to enterthings on the screen with a pen. Another problem was that the pen-based adaptations were skin-deep.Windows remained a thoroughly keyboard-and-mouse-based operatingsystem, and many functions were simply hard to get to with a pen.Third-party applications weren’t converted for pen use at all. As abackup, many of these tablets had keyboards, just like laptops. The tablet PCs found homes in a few business settings, where a PCthat could be used while standing, at least for short periods, waswelcome. But they remained a niche product, and the number ofmanufacturers who made tablet PCs steadily shrank.

In parallel with the Tablet PC push, Microsoft prompted partnerssuch as Fujitsu and ViewSonic to create Smart Displays. These werebig tablets intended for home use, and each one was linked to a PCthrough Wi-Fi, making it something of an expensive monitor withshort-range portability. This was supposed to be a cheaperalternative to a full-blown tablet, but the devices reached shelvesat $1,000 and more in 2003. While a Smart Display was in use, theassociated PC could not be used. Very few were sold, and Microsoftcanceled the project the same year.

Microsoft gave tablets another try in 2006, launching “ProjectOrigami” with some of its partners. The idea was to make reallysmall PCs with screens sensitive not just to pens, but to fingers.This time, fewer companies followed along. One of them was Samsung,which had high hopes for its “Q1.” But Microsoft hadn’t learned much from its Tablet PC adventure.Windows was still hard to use with anything other than a keyboard.The “Ultra-Mobile PCs” were still expensive and suffered from veryshort battery life the Q1 could surf the Web for about 2 hours.One thing they did get right was weight the Q1 weighed 1.7pounds, just a bit more than a first-generation iPad. In 2008, reports emerged of yet another tablet computer, or rathera “booklet computer,” being developed by Microsoft. Code-named”Courier,” it had two screens joined by a hinge, and facing eachother.

It was designed for pen and finger input. Microsoft canceledthe project in 2010, saying it was just one of many projects ittests to “foster productivity and creativity.” One touch-based computer that did see the light of day in 2008 wasMicrosoft Surface. It was more of a table than a tablet: Thecomputer was a big box that sat on a floor, with a big, horizontalscreen on top. It was intended not for home use but for storedisplays and similar applications. Unusually, Microsoft didn’t relyon hardware partners for this product, but made and sold it on itsown.

Intended as a niche product, it has remained one. Microsoft has had one notable success in the tablet space if youapply a broad definition to the term. Its “Pocket PC” operatingsystem, which is distinct from Windows, ran on phone-sizedhand-held “personal digital assistants” starting around 2000. The devices were powerful compared with Palm’s PDAs, the marketleaders of their time. The Pocket PCs supported color screens, andcould recognize casual handwriting.

Compaq made good use ofMicrosoft’s Pocket PC software in its popular iPAQ line. But PDAswere a small market, and when Pocket PC moved over to smartphonesand was renamed Windows Mobile, it soon found tough competition inthe shape of BlackBerrys and then iPhones. The company that finally cracked the tablet code in 2010 was Apple,not Microsoft. Apple made the iPad a success by scaling up a phonerather than scaling down a PC, which is what Microsoft had beentrying to do with the Tablet PC and Origami. Phone chips are cheapand last much longer on batteries, which meant that the iPad wasboth light, inexpensive and had good battery life.

In addition, theiPhone software it used was designed from the ground up for touchinput. Microsoft’s new strategy is similar. For Windows 8, it’s borrowingdesign features from Windows Phone, its new smartphone system. Mostimportantly, one version of the software is designed to run onphone-style chips, rather than the PC-style chips that have beenthe mainstay of Windows since it was created in the 1980s. Itremains to be seen whether Microsoft can make its tablet vision areality, or if it will stay a mirage.
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