1993: Tablets and eBooks at the Birth of the Web
In STEEPS categorization, this is mainly a Technological and Economic/Entrepreneurship counterfactual. On first glance, it may not seem as important as many of our others. But I believe it is, as it is about accelerating the greatest complexity construction project humanity has ever been engaged in, the web. From the perspective of digital empowerment, anything that might accelerate the web’s emergence, while also increasing competition and choice, is a particularly futureworthy goal. The web is a critical developmental portal, a gateway to the emergence of free education, open internet media, social networks, mass collaboration, collaborative filtering, natural language understanding, predictive analytics, personal software agents, and all the other forms of AI that grow on top of Big Data. Anything that can help the web get better faster is thus potentially a very progressive public good.
Let’s look at a missed opportunity to do just that, an opportunity that might have advanced various aspects of computing and the web perhaps ten to fifteen years further than they are today, depending on what aspects you consider important, and what assumptions you make. Part of this comes from my publication, How the Television Will Be Revolutionized: The Future of the iPad, Internet TV, and Web 3.0 (2010). See that for more details.
To introduce this counterfactual, we should briefly set the stage, for those who don’t recall the history of computing in the 1980s and 1990s. The first functional pocket tablets (PDAs) PCs began emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990’s. The media generally bought into what was then called the “pen computing” craze. Though an early history shows pen-based computers began in the early 1970s, pen-based sofware emerged for personal computers beginning in 1983, and self-contained tablets right after that. Early tablet computers with pen input, both large and small, included the Pencept (1985), GRiDPad (1989), Poqet (1989), Momenta (1991) the IBM ThinkPad 700C Tablet (1992, left) the Amstrad PenPad (1993, right), and most famously, the Apple Newton MessagePad (1993).
None of these systems succeeded in the marketplace, because they were too bulky and low-powered as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and because tablet PCs still didn’t have a killer application, something that would start exponential adoption patterns, driving down their size, weight and cost of manufacture. But I think such a killer application was already available. This counterfactual proposes that tablets would have succeeded if they’d been paired with eBooks in 1993, right at the birth of the web. In addition to promoting reading, that would have further accelerated tablet, laptop, smartphone, wi-fi, digital publishing, and general web development.
Beginning with the Apple Macintosh in 1984, WYSIWYG design and desktop publishing were dramatically improving the online reading experience. By the late 1980s, online text, pictures, and animations looked beautiful on the best personal computers. eBooks, childrens books, and even comics were beginning to migrate to the computer. Online services like CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy had grown strongly every year since the mid-1980s, and Prodigy had a graphical user interface in 1986. The Mosaic browser emerged in January 1993. 1993 was also the year of the Eternal September, when America Online began offering Usenet access to its tens of thousands of users. It was obvious to foresighted thinkers that the web would explode, and consumers would be directly downloading from the web to their home computers, laptops, tablets, and other digital devices.
It was in this climate that the first powerful and easy-to-use tablets emerged, including IBM’s (5.7 pound, $4350) ThinkPad Tablet 700C in 1992 and Apple’s (1.4 lb, $700) Newton MessagePad in 1993. Both had slick pen-based operating systems, and each showed the ease, simplicity, and fun of reading from and clicking on a tablet. At $700, Apple’s PDA tablet obviously attracted all the interest. It was very close to a useful device.
At this point, all the tablet makers, or any good entrepreneur, needed to realize was that a substantial fraction of people love to read, they love having choice about what to read, and tablets were finally easy, fun, and inexpensive enough to read with, particularly the Newton, PenPad, and other PDA tablets at the start. With a little marketing, capital, and vision, a Netflix-style buy or rent-and-return-disks-by-mail model of ebook reading could have immediately emerged, with tablets (and secondarily, laptops and desktops) as their recommended reading form factor. From the beginning, customers with Mosaic would have been able to download both free and pay (by subscription) ebook titles directly off their computers, allowing the building of the first massive online database of eBook titles. Distribution deals could have been cut with either CompuServe, AOL, or Prodigy online services as well. Reading customers would have quickly learned, through TV, radio, and print ads, about all the reading titles, many quite inexpensive, becoming available for these devices. The print files of small publishers could have easily been turned into ebooks.
Customers would have received eBook catalogs in the mail, and browsed them on the web or on online services, for buying or renting these titles. One or more of the leading bookstore chains (Crown, Borders, B&N), larger independent bookstores, and department stores could also have started stocking ebook titles as 3.5″ floppy disks (these were actually hard plastic disks, not fragile like floppies, left), to be rented, sold and collected by customers in cute little plastic storage boxes (right) and demoing and selling reading tablets in their stores. This multichannel media, catalog, store-based, and online marketing strategy would have grown organically from the beginning, as tablets like the Newton were already enjoyable enough to read on. No major publishing partner would have been needed at the outset, as all the majors would likely have been against such competition at the outset.
It is true that far fewer people read books than watch movies, but from the beginning adult and childrens books would have been popular titles on tablets. A low-end, Kindle-sized tablet that was larger than the MessagePad, with a rubberized case like today’s smartphones, would have been popular right from the start. This company could have been launched in 1993, right at the birth of the web. It would have greatly accelerated the emergence of smaller, lighter, and cheaper tablets, and of course the general quality of online information. These tablets would not have had to be pen-based, either. Resistive, capacitive, and multitouch touch screen tablets could also have emerged in eReaders in 1995. See this great history of touchscreen technology at Ars Technica. Resistive touchscreens were first invented in 1965, and first used in a classroom in 1971. The HP-150 was a touchscreen PC that debuted in 1983.
We must ask whether this early ebook market could have led to a more closed web. I don’t think so. Both open and proprietary computing and information platforms were already well established. With a new platform and set of players in the information marketplace, both the open and the proprietary web would have advanced faster than they did. How much faster depends on the innovation we’re contemplating. Amazon.com went online in 1995. Netflix was started in 1997. The Amazon Kindle debuted in 2007, fourteen years after ebooks could have emerged. The Apple iPad emerged in 2010, seventeen years after the Newton. Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablet came out in 2011. Yet all of these could have been born in 1993. So I’d argue between five and seventeen years of potential early progress in these technologies and business models were lost, because the right set of entrepreneurs and technologists didn’t see this strategy at the time.
Who could have made this happen? Several computer manufacturers could have done it, in concert with a publishing entrepreneur. IBM could have done it, but they would have needed a cheaper tablet than the ThinkPad. Compaq (1983-2000), could have done it. They had the technical skill, and their inexpensive “transportable” personal computer, an IBM PC clone, had made their name in 1982. Hewlett Packard could have done it. Even a gaming company like Nintendo could have done it, though it would have been outside their scope at the time.
Most obviously, Apple could have done it, and found their way to an online database of eBooks that would have turned into iTunes, eight years before iTunes actually emerged for the iPod. Unfortunately, Apple missed this strategy. Their Newton MessagePad, which was designed beginning in 1987 and launched in 1993, failed for a number of reasons. Price and weight were not among them. At $700 and 1.4 pounds, the MessagePad would have been light and cheap enough as a first generation Newton ReaderPad. Here’s what killed the Newton, in my view:
- It had no compelling use case, as it had no impressive catalog of eBook titles at launch.
- It was too big to be a pocketable PDA, but still smaller than a typical book page, so it couldn’t be a great PDA or a great eReader. It should have been a bit larger, and the PDA features downplayed in the first version. Tablet technology was ready in 1993 for eReaders, not for PDAs.
- Apple overpromised what Calligrapher, the handwriting recognition software could do. As a standalone PDA without a keyboard, overpromising was a problem. As an eReader, Calligrapher would have been an annotation overlay for ebooks. That would have given the Newton ReaderPad something the Kindle still lacks today–natural annotation!
- At 20 hours, using NiCads with backlight, the Newton had insufficient battery life for a PDA. But 20 hours is fine for an eReader, which isn’t used all day long like a PDA.
Just the year previously, Apple had launched their 4.2 pound Powerbook Duo (left). The monochrome Duo 210 came out in Oct 1992 for a retail price of $1400 ($1200 street). This was an amazing piece of laptop mobility, and it immediately built an ardent fanbase, myself among them. Only the Macbook Air is lighter today, after all these years. If an Apple eBook venture had been tied to Newtons and Duos from the outset, both products would have steadily grown in sales. As a result, the Duo ultralight form factor would not have been dropped by Apple, as it was for eleven years, between 1997 and the Macbook Air in 2008. Apple’s most portable tablets and laptops would have continued to get smaller and lighter, right on through the 1990s. Wirelessly downloading ebooks, most of which have very small file sizes, to your tablet would also have been a great early Wi-Fi application. The first good wireless was NCR’s WaveLAN product. It came to market in 1988, five years before the Newton. So this use case could have brought Wi-Fi to the masses in 1993 or 1994. Instead, Apple’s AirPort emerged in 1999.
Ironically, Apple’s most successful early hardware device, the Apple II, was a huge hit with kids and educators mainly because of the depth of its available software titles. Thus they overlooked a bit of company history that could have led them to a much better strategy for the Newton. Apple sold their last Apple II’s in 1993. So an eReading tablet that also worked with simple educational games from the outset would have been a great brand extension for the Apple II line. Affordable color laptops/eReaders/pen computers/iPads would have debuted soon after. The beautiful color Powerbook Duo 270c (right) was introduced in Oct 1993 for $3100 retail. Like the earlier Apple Lisa, this laptop was about twice too expensive to see adoption at the time, but the monochrome Duo 210’s and 230’s sold well from the outset. With the success of a monochrome Newton Reader in 1993, an affordable color Newton Reader could have emerged in 1995, fifteen years before the iPad. We would have seen some really excellent Apple sketching programs on the iPads of the 1990s as well. Drawing programs that don’t exist even with iPads of 2016, because this history never happened.
Many futurists saw the tablet future coming. But unfortunately, no one apparently saw, or at least believed enough to try, the most compelling early use case, eBooks that would have driven tablets through their immaturity into maturity and mass use, beginning in 1993. Particularly prescient was Roger Fidler, at Knight-Ridder’s Information Design Lab in Colorado. He saw tablets as the “Newspaper of the Future” even in the late 1980s. See the Fidler Lab’s beautiful video below, presented at CHI 1995. His team perfectly describes the iPad world that emerged fifteen years later, in 2010.
Knight-Ridder was the first newspaper publisher to experiment with videotex (a terminal- and text-based interactive information system) with its Viewtron system, delivered to the home on AT&T Sceptre terminals, from 1983-1986. But while large companies can be highly innovative in one domain under one manager, they are often counterinnovative and conservative in most others, due to their very size and structure. As Viewtron scaled, Knight-Ridder learned that its interactivity features were more interesting to people than news delivery on its primitive 1980’s screens (right). Even though they’d expanded to 15 cities, and at least a few internal product managers were forecasting breakeven in just two more years, Knight-Ridder pulled the plug on Viewtron after six years and $50M invested, as well as $100M investment by AT&T in the terminals. That makes Viewtron one of the bigger project failures in American IT history. The Los Angeles Times also folded their Gateway videotex service, using the same AT&T terminals in 1986. Some of this software was eventually repurposed by the online service Prodigy when it launched regionally in 1988. The management of these newspaper companies simply wasn’t ready to jump start the web in 1983. Their leaders didn’t have the vision, marketing chops, forecasting ability, agility, feedback systems, or risk tolerance to do it.
Newspapers also missed the loss of their classified advertising business, which was as much as a third of their revenues at some papers, to the web. The obvious strategy of building a pooled national online version of their classified ads in the early years, which would have been the best database of used goods in the nation at the time, and an ecommerce system to buy those goods online, was squandered by newspaper managers across America, even though several advisors apparently proposed this idea to them, including myself as a budding futurist, in an early 1990’s letter to the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, the amateur-built online services eBay (1995) and Craigslist (1996) emerged, they did nothing to counter the threat, and the rest is history, as they say. Foresight matters!