A look back at Apple's first tablet (not an iPad), and the journey to today

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
A look back at Apple's first tablet (not an iPad), and the journey to today
We're now well into 2022, here comes February! And this is yet another year where Apple continues to dominate the tablet market, with its iPad accounting for about 35% of all tablet sales, according to Statista's latest reports. A fairly distant second place goes to Samsung at about 18%, followed by Huawei.

But Apple wasn't always a maker of powerful, highly polished and desirable tablets. And the first iPad Steve Jobs famously revealed back in 2010 wasn't the Cupertino company's first tablet. Let's take a look at Apple's true first tablet, and just for fun, compare its specs against the latest and greatest 2021 iPad Pro.

It was a dark, dark time, before smartphones…

I still fondly remember the first time someone "rich enough" to own a phone-slash-PDA (personal digital assistant) let me tinker with it. That was before the smartphone was a thing; PDAs were all the rage, and if my memory is correct, what he whipped out was a Palm Pocket PC, an early 2000s model, which meant current at the time.

It had a stylus, a color touch screen, and could do a whole lot of things for the right person – you could input your memos, there was a notepad app, a calendar, and who knows what else; I was too little to figure it all out.

That thing blew me away, it was basically the first "smartphone" I ever saw.

Meanwhile my Siemens phone at the time could barely save a few phone numbers, had no color, not even real music playback, but what was then called "polyphonic ringtones". Let alone a touchscreen! Why, touching the screen to control your device seemed like some futuristic space technology back then…

Anyways, it was the early 2000s, and that PDA did seem cutting-edge to me at the time, but it wasn't. Apple tried to do something much more elaborate, and ten years earlier – a tablet computer, before anyone knew what that was.

Apple's first tablet came out in 1993: The Newton MessagePad

First conceived as early as 1990 and unveiled to the public at the 1992 Consumer Electronics Show, the MessagePad was marketed as a PDA, because, again, nobody used the word "tablet" yet. Even PDAs were quite uncommon at the time, still to have their day in the spotlight.

It was big, bulky (1.4 lbs / 640 grams), with the kind of plastic build that starts melting and getting gross over the years. So if you decide to spend an unreasonable amount of money to get the MessagePad as a collectible, expect it to literally stick to your fingers. But hey, at least the size and weight were to be expected, as late 80s and early 90s technology was far from ready to fit in the thin phone or tablet form factor we're used to today.

Now let's get into something really fun to look back on – the specs of this chonky bad boy. On board we get up to 8 megabytes of storage, while the cheapest iPad today starts at 64 gigabytes, or 8000 times more.

The Newton "MessagePad 100" model also packed 4 MB of RAM at best, and its screen was a monochrome LCD with a resolution of 336 by 240 pixels. It had a backlight, which was a handy feature many handheld devices at the time skimped on.

And what about the battery that powered this mighty beast? Well, the tablet was actually powered by two AAA batteries and had an additional, replaceable backup battery, so it wouldn't lose all of your data once the former depleted, or as you pulled them out to replace them.

Of course, the stylus this device came with was its headlining feature – the MessagePad had hand recognition! You could handwrite with the stylus, and it would recognize your chicken scratch and convert it to text… Well, sometimes.

You could also draw graphs and generally do a whole lot of businessman organizing, and while it all sounds convenient and cutting-edge for the time, none of it worked quite as well as one would've hoped.

The hand recognition was pretty hit-and-miss, which didn't bode well for the fact that the device relied exclusively on the stylus and handwriting, and perhaps worst of all, it cost anywhere between $900 and $1,569 depending on the specs you picked.

Adjusted for inflation, that latter price is equal to $3,027 today, by the way, so you'd have to be quite the wealthy businessman to afford this. And even then, you'd probably wish you had just used a notepad for jotting down your notes, phone numbers and weekly schedule.

In any case, we have this beautifully 90s promo video for the Netwon MessagePad that showcases what Apple's vision was:

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Needless to say, Apple's first tablet didn't sell too well. It was very ambitious, and its handwriting was still impressive, flawed as it was, but neither consumers nor the technology was ready for tablets yet, especially not for $3,000. But, that didn't stop Apple from trying again.

The company continued releasing Apple Newton devices well into the late 90s, with each iteration improving on the features of the previous model. But, as you can probably guess by likely never having heard of them, these devices didn't really pick up with the average consumer regardless.

And so, the Apple Newton line was discontinued in early 1998, shortly after Steve Jobs returned to the company as CEO, after being forced out of it back in '85. He allegedly wasn't fond of the Newton's poor performance and reliance on a stylus, while still appreciating the potential of touch technology. So, a few years and iPhones later…

The first iPad was here to change the game

Back in 2010, which oddly feels like a recent time yet it's 12 long years ago, Steve Jobs took the stage to introduce the first ever iPad to the world, and it was beautiful. Computers were these bulky, beige, heavy things no more.

It browses the web, it does email, it can display photos and play videos, music, games, it can read ebooks…

Plenty of things people used a computer for could now be done from the comfort of their couch (or plane, or bathroom). People could bring all of the digital things that they love with them anywhere. It was thin (for the time) and beautiful. Not heavy, not needing a keyboard and a mouse, it was extremely simple and straightforward to use too.

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Now let's look at those 2010 specs. The first Apple iPad was powered by 256 MB of RAM, the Apple A4 chip, and came with up to 64 GB of storage, which was quite impressive for the time. 64 GB of your movies and photos that you could take with you and view anywhere, on a large screen? Yes, please!

That large screen was an LED, 9.7 inches, 1024 by 768 pixels, which was a resolution quite common on computers at the time too.

As an internet-focused device, the iPad had WiFi support, of course, with optional 3G too. Big screen web browsing on the go was quite an exciting feature, and I'm sure many would argue browsing the web on a tablet has always been more fun than on a PC. Imagine how futuristic it felt back then, when it was a new concept!

iPhone OS 3.2 was the operating system that made things happen on the first iPad. It was indeed quite literally just a large iPhone without the phone, but that didn't make it any less exciting or any more redundant a device. Pre-installed apps included the Safari web browser, Mail, Photos, Maps, Notes, Calendar, and of course – iPod, for music listening, now Apple Music.

Best of all, perhaps among the most exciting features was the App Store, featuring a seemingly endless amount of fun tablet apps you could discover and enjoy, from games to productivity ones. And despite its hefty starting price of $499, the first iPad was highly desirable and successful. And to this day, as we mentioned earlier, the iPad is the world's best selling tablet on the market.

Now, after checking out Apple's first tablet, and Apple's first iPad, just for fun, let's check out what the company's newest iPad is like too.

The modern iPad Pro is a versatile productivity and entertainment beast

Early last year when I reviewed Apple's biggest and largest iPad Pro 12.9-inch, I described its main selling point as a "beautiful and large OLED-rivaling mini-LED display". Indeed, unlike previous iPads, the 12.9-inch 2021 one has the type of screen that is just about perfect for watching YouTube videos and movies. So close to the best OLED displays out there – bright, with vibrant colors, pitch blacks, and of course, those powerful quad stereo speakers enhance the movie watching experience quite a bit too.

But basic entertainment isn't all the iPad Pro is fantastic for, but also for certain types of professional work, and school work too.

Its Apple M1 chip and up to 16GB RAM deliver unrivaled performance, especially considering that even the cheapest base iPad today crushes the flagship competition. The iPad Pro can also come with an insane 2TB of storage if you have the coin for it, and boy is that plenty enough for your entire movie and music library. Carry your digital content wherever, as the iPad is also super thin and light, made out of smooth metal and glass.

With the iPad Pro I've edited photos and videos, produced music and created artworks, often way faster than I would even on a gaming PC. As the iPad is not only blazingly fast, but over the years, the App Store has filled with incredible, well-optimized iPad apps for professional work.

Apple has also embraced iPad mouse support as of recent years, or more accurately trackpad support, introducing it on both iPadOS – the tablet's now-standalone operating system – and in the form of first-party keyboard accessories.

The iPad can turn into whatever you want, including something super close to a laptop. Since the first one to the latest model, it has managed to change the way many view computers. Thanks in part to how appealing the iPad is, laptop sales are actually often on a decline!

So there we have it, another fun look back, so we can appreciate the way technology has evolved over time to serve us better today.

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