The Apple Tablet: a complete history, supposedly

Laura June Dziuban
L. Dziuban|01.26.10

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The Apple Tablet: a complete history, supposedly
It's no secret to us (or our readers) that Apple's products tend to generate what some might consider insane amounts of interest for weeks, months, and even years before they're launched or even announced. Whether you love the company or hate its guts, you can't deny that Apple is particularly prone to being fodder for the rumor mill. It comes in all forms: leaked photos (be they real, fake, or merely imaginative fan creations), analyst speculation based on "what if" scenarios for investors, "insider" reports from Asian supply chains, and a fair amount of conjecture via the press, both mainstream and blog alike. Here at Engadget, we've always been pretty proud of our ability to decode fact from fiction, and we try not to add too much noise to the echo chamber in which the gadget world seems to sometimes live. That said, we do cover plenty of rumors -- and the Apple Tablet (in its many rumored form factors) may just be the biggest and most twisted of them all.

Apple's been kicking around the idea of a tablet since at least... oh, 1983. From real, physical prototypes to out-there ideas such as the Knowledge Navigator -- the company (who did not, alas, invent the idea of a tablet PC) has, somewhat unsurprisingly, seen fit to investigate the possibility for almost as long as it's been around. For one reason or another, though, they've never actually produced a device which saw the light of retail day (well, besides the Newton). Perhaps that's part of the fascination that Apple fans have with the product -- it's been rumored so long, and seemed on the verge of actual arrival so many times that it's become a Holy Grail of sorts for the tech community.

Evidence that any tablet actually existed or would come to retail, however, has always been slim at best. In the entire lifespan of Engadget, not one viable photo of a real-looking prototype has ever emerged, and not one source within Apple itself has ever really hinted that it was at work on such a product. Oh sure, there have been dozens -- possibly hundreds -- of people "familiar with the matter," but almost no one who would or could go on record to talk about the tablet, and in the end, it's always seemed like a non-starter. The Apple Tablet rumor started in earnest around 2002 -- before Engadget was even around. By the time we arrived to the party, the idea that Apple might be working on a tablet or slate PC was pretty firmly entrenched into the psyche of the avid gadget geek, but again, perilously little evidence existed to support the idea, or shall we say... the hope?

And here we are, in January of 2010, on the verge of yet another expiration date for the rumored launch of an Apple Tablet (though let's be honest -- this thing is starting to feel pretty real). We thought now might be as good a time as any to take a look back -- back through the rumor timeline of one of the gadget world's longest-standing, and seemingly best-loved unicorns. Join us for the ride, won't you?

2004 - 2006: The early years

This may blow your collective minds, but the first time Engadget encountered the somewhat-maybe-semi-realistic prospect of an Apple tablet-style PC was... in August of 2004. The year of our launch. The talk of the tablet was brought on by a design patent Apple filed in Europe in May of that year for a "handheld computer," and listed Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive on the application, along with a handful of other members of the company's industrial design team. This filing, detailed in The Register, added fuel to a fire that had caught spark in 2003, when a "source close to" Taiwanese manufacturer Quanta said it had been hired to build a "wireless display" for Apple. Then Editor-in-Chief Peter Rojas displayed a healthy amount of skepticism about the story -- as Engadget is naturally wont to do -- since the talk amounted to no more than hearsay and rumor about a stack of filings on some British clerk's desk. What no one could have foreseen back in those days was the extent to which our quest for some honest-to-goodness truth would be tried... for the next five and a half years.

After that initial flareup, things stayed pretty quiet on the tablet rumor scene for a while -- but like all good Apple rumors, the thing just couldn't stay dead. Talk started heating up again in May of 2005, courtesy of glorious US Design Patent No. D504,889 -- the Stateside version of that very same European patent, and our first glimpse of that now-infamous line drawing of an oddly-proportioned (and legless) man using his finger to lovingly touch a... tablet. Somewhat amazingly, virtually everyone overlooked the extremely narrow nature of design patents -- the patent is solely for the ornamental design of a tablet, and not any functional or internal components. So it's less an "Apple Tablet patent" than it is an "imaginary Apple product that looks like this on the outside" patent -- a crucial distinction that's been washed away by time. The filed document bestowed the electronic device with the sexy and exotic name "Electronic device." Less than two weeks later, blogger and general man-about-town Rob Bushway wrote that he had a source who in turn had "no less than five" other sources claiming that an Apple tablet announcement was essentially imminent. This time around, however, the world was treated to some spec speculation, and the prototype devices (which were supposedly being fondled by several members of the press under Non-Disclosure Agreements) boasted instant-on, a touchscreen, a customized Intel Sonoma chip, and ran a stripped-down OS X. Yes, the fun was just beginning.

Further patent applications filed in February of 2006 (and actually dating back to 2004) revealed that Apple was working on various touchscreen-related interface ideas, most of which described using "multiple fingers, gestures and motions" plus additional methods for manipulating the user interface itself. Things were still pretty vague at this point -- remember, this is all pre-iPhone -- but it was certainly clear that Apple was up to something -- the patent applications mention "multipoint touch screens", and describe pinch-to-zoom and control elements that enlarge when a finger is held over them. (Like, say, the iPhone keyboard.) Add to that a second patent application for a virtual keyboard in April of 2006 and a certain ideal for a product seemed to be coming into view -- hell, even made an animated GIF to explain the then-new idea of pinch-to-zoom. Looking back, it's hard to say which of these patent applications were actually granted, since many of them seem to have withered away, been combined with other patent applications, or simply rejected. (We can certainly tell you that we've never seen a granted patent on pinch-to-zoom, though.) Finally, in late in 2006, blog Smarthouse caught wind of "sources in Taiwan" which claimed that the Apple tablet would launch in mid-2007. This time, the Intel-based Mac tablet would have educational and enterprise uses in its sights, boasting a docking station, HDMI inputs, plus some intriguing talk of integration with a new, wireless version of the iPod Hi-Fi, as well as a sprinkling of home automation features. It all sounded so good, so tangible... so close. Yet after all of the promise of those patent applications, and source upon source claiming to know for a fact that the tablet was on its way, only silence and darkness followed.

2007 - 2008: Backburner

The first half of 2007 was a particularly lame time in the life of the saga of the Apple tablet. Where previously there had been a steady stream of chatter there were now only iPhone rumors which consumed pretty much all of any Apple fan's time and energy. So while the iPhone may have dampened people's thoughts (and hopes) for or about an Apple tablet, its appearance also ultimately reformatted people's options of what the tablet was going to be like when those rumors re-emerged. And they did, of course -- and this time, there was something new to compare it to. Adding to the fire, just before iPhone launched on June 29th, 2007, The New York Times ran a piece on the iPhone in which a former Apple employee said Steve Jobs had become sweet on multitouch when it was first proposed for a "Safari Pad" tablet, but had decided to build a cellphone with the technology instead. In September of 2007, when the first talk of the tablet really hit for the year, it was thought that Apple's "Newton successor" would be about 1.5-times the size of... the iPhone, and that it would boast a 720x480 resolution touchscreen display that covered nearly the entire surface of the unit. Yes, that sure does sound familiar! October saw our first glimpse of what a next-gen Apple touch device could be like in a patent application detailing a touchscreen with an "articulating frame" that forms raised "dots" for easier typing -- a seeming compromise between a physical keyboard and virtual unit. Another wild patent filed in November revealed a seriously multitouch surface capable of detecting all 10 fingers and whether or not a user was holding a pen. No matter, the Apple Tablet was soon "confirmed" by Crave, who reported anonymous sources -- "friends at ASUS" -- which said that the company was helping Apple to build a tablet PC, but provided no other details, and sadly, not a single shred of evidence.

Then, at the beginning of 2008, right before Macworld, some mockups which then Engadget Editor-in-Chief Ryan Block referred to as "crappy" surfaced, and helped get the old rumor wheels really cranking into motion again. The mocks essentially resembled giant iPhones, sporting a similar virtual keyboard and 'home' button that would become the hallmark of any sweet Photoshop of the Apple Tablet. The fan-made dream device included a docking station, a dual-screen SSD-boasting tablet, and was dubbed the MacBook Touch. Sure, it was exceedingly far-fetched and nearly laughable, but the idea of what we expected a potential Apple Tablet to look like surely had solidified. By mid-May of 2008 -- amid the tech world's fascination with separate rumors about an iPhone 3G -- a report hailing from Intel Germany chief Hannes Schwaderer claimed that Apple was working on a MID which would boast the company's new Atom CPU, and was expected to be launched around WWDC 2008. Schwaderer later said that the report -- which was first printed on ZDNET -- had all its facts wrong, but the damage (insofar as it stoked further rumors) was already done.

Then at the end of August, a 52-page patent filing seemed to make it quite clear what Apple was up to. The stark line drawings showed mottled, ruined and hideous hands touching and gesturing -- quite explicitly -- on a tablet PC. The "large-format" touch interfaces described within made no bones about it -- a tablet surely was on its way. Looking back on it now, however, it's clear that this new patent application is just a revised and updated version of the same patent from 2004 that still hasn't been granted -- check out those same hands in the images. In fact, look closely -- those are the exact same images first used in 2004! It turns out that throughout this saga, folks have been getting excited over the same few Apple patent application drawings in slightly different forms again and again, because the claims are continually being rejected, modified, and resubmitted. Even good old Engadget posted fresh articles circling the same concepts but missed the obvious duplicates. Hey, at least we got a break from the hysteria, because from May of 2008 until March of 2009 there was... nothing.

2009: The heat is (back) on

So what happened? Well, on June 9th, 2008 the iPhone 3G was announced at WWDC. No, there was not a single mention of tablet computing, but there were plenty of other, real things to freak out about: the aforementioned iPhone 3G, the announcement of Snow Leopard, and plenty of app announcements to boot. But the tablet rumor wasn't one that would stay dead for long, and when it returned in March of 2009, it returned with a vengeance. This time, details about supposed specs would flow easily and often, starting with a DigiTimes / Commercial Times doubleshot which suggested that Wintek would supply the touchpanels to Quanta, who in turn would be tasked with putting Apple's tablets together for a launch in the third quarter of 2009. The same information was regurgitated just a day later, adding that said tablet would be somewhere between 9.7 and 10-inches.

By the end of April, BusinessWeek was reporting (via two people "familiar with the matter") that Apple was in the prototyping phase of two devices for Verizon -- one of them said to be a "media pad" for gaming, music, HD video, and placing calls over WiFi. Just two days later AppleInsider (courtesy of our old friends, "people familiar with the matter") was saying that Apple might cut prices on some MacBooks and iMacs, but that this was just an interim solution leading up to... you guessed it! A low cost tablet computer set to compete with netbooks. Then late in May DigiTimes reavowed its earlier supposition that Wintek would supply the panels for the tablet, but things started to get seriously interesting in September, when we got our first earful of rumored pricing for the non-existent product. This time it was the ChinaTimes saying that a 9.7-inch Apple "netbook" of unclear form factor would run about $800 when it debuted in October, 2009 -- which did sound pretty good, we have to say. So, with pricing kind of, sort of out of the way, what could we learn next? Well, in July, 2009 TechCrunch busted out the news that Verizon was pushing up its LTE launch plans to the first quarter of 2010, and that it was possibly doing so because a tablet with no voice services that worked on LTE wouldn't violate Apple's exclusive agreement with AT&T.

And this, we have to tell you, is where the rumors started to really get out of hand. Nearly every day we were shoveling them out the door to make room for the new flood coming in -- and we nixed way, way more than we ever published. So, by the time AppleInsider reported on July 24th that Steve Jobs, after innumerable setbacks, had finally given the tablet the go-ahead, our editorial eyebrows were raised pretty high. It's not that we didn't want the tablet to be real, merely that we'd heard it so many times before... but okay, this time the tablet would be 10 inches, have 3G, and a custom P.A. Semi processor. Just two days later someone at Barron's (ominously referred to as a "veteran analyst") said they'd actually held the tablet... in their hands! The report was riddled with other facts (which of course conflicted with previously reported information), including a September launch, a shelf-date of November, a $699-$799 price range and the notion that the device would be largely a media player with Apple TV tie-ins. But then, just about a week later, our hopes -- well, those of us that had any firm hopes left, anyway -- were dashed by The Loop's report that "very reliable sources" said that there would be no Apple tablet until 2010. The next day, on August 14th, the iPAD (as it was referred to in the text) was listed as an option in a Borders' Books survey about e-readers, seemingly confirming what we already knew: everybody on earth was convinced that Apple was producing a tablet which would compete with smartphones, netbooks, e-readers, and every other conceivable gadget. By the time the next day rolled around, when a purportedly real but seemingly 100 percent fake image of the tablet rolled around, even the family dog was starting to look unconvinced.

By the end of August the Wall Street Journal reported that Steve Jobs was pouring "almost all of his attention" into the tablet, though he still apparently had the time to respond to the article by saying that much of the paper's information was "incorrect." Apple's September iPod came and went without even a whiff of tablety-ness (which was no surprise since it was, after all, an iPod event), but by the middle of the month, the Taiwan Economic News was hitting back, saying that its "industry sources" reported that the tablet would be unearthed in February of 2010, that it would have a 9.6-inch multitouch screen, built-in HSDPA (poor, sad Verizon), a long-lived battery, that P.A. Semi processor we'd already heard about, and that it would cost between $799 and $999. The report also claimed that DynaPack was the exclusive supplier of the batteries, while Wintek continued to be the named supplier of the displays (and why not: they do, after all, make the iPhone's display).

Following soon after that, iLounge had some sources of its own saying that the tablet would actually boast a 10.7-inch display with a 720p (or thereabouts) resolution, that there would be two versions of it -- one with 3G and one without -- and that it would run iPhone OS. The next thing we knew, DigiTimes was spraying the news all over town that Foxconn would be manufacturing the tablet, not the long-rumored Quanta. The pub also took the time to spill some other beans, including that the tablet would be a 10.6-inch panel with e-book functions, and that it would hit the market in the first quarter of 2010. Interest was running high enough that when another Apple patent application was slightly revised and refiled, no one noticed that it was old news -- this time it was the 10 finger multitouch screen filing that piqued our interest for the second time. Then Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times added to the strange brew by mentioning the "impending Apple slate" in a public setting during a speech about the paper's web presence. A mid-November patent application for handling "ink information" on a "pen-based input / display device" kept the rumors going, as did another DigiTimes hit claiming that the tablet would now actually be two tablets -- a 9.7-incher with an LG OLED screen running $2,000, and a 10.6-incher LCD version costing around $800. By now, Conde Nast had also confirmed its content would be available on the tablet.

On December 9, 2009, Engadget Editor-in-Chief (and major babe) Joshua Topolsky referred to some "analyst noise" courtesy of Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner, who opined that the tablet would be 10.1 inches and unleashed upon earthly consumers in March or April of 2010 with a $1,000 pricepoint -- and that it would profoundly affect both the state of publishing and e-reader powerhouse Amazon. Then, on the eve of Christmas Eve, the first whisper of an impending Apple event arrived via a triple-threat of whopper reporting. Silicon Alley Insider reported that Apple was working with app developers for demos on a "new, larger mobile device" while Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster was in a betting mood, scribbling of an investor note which gave a 75% chance of a January Apple event happening, while AppleInsider pegged the date for January 26th. (Gene, we hope you put some money down on this one, man!) The year really ended with a bang in the Apple tablet department, including the one-two punch of a New York Times article saying people would be "surprised" with how they interacted with the tablet coupled with a newly revised version of that multitouch tactile keyboard patent application (sadly, we once again didn't catch the lineage), a nice rise in the company's stock due to the rumored tablet event, and a bunch of component talk, including some DigiTimes reports that the 10-inch glass panels would now be manufactured by Innolux (rather than Wintek), with a March or April launch date in sight. It seemed even ex-head of Google China Kai-fu Lee (who also has connections to Foxconn) wanted to weigh in, saying that the announcement would indeed come in January, while repeating many of the previously heard specs -- less than $1,000, 3G onboard, 10.1-inch size, iPhone-esque stylings, and so on. He also interestingly noted that Apple expected to move around ten million units in the first year of sale... though Lee later told Bloomberg that he had never discussed Apple's products at all. Engadget friend and columnist (and renowned lover of bagels) Michael Gartenberg ended the year around here with a piece detailing the many things that the Apple Tablet probably wouldn't or shouldn't be, among them a giant iPhone and a crummy MID.

2010: The year we make contact?

2010 started off with three whole days of silence about the Apple Tablet, but that silence proved to be a fleeting calm before the storm. By the 4th of January, All Things D, The Wall Street Journal and some sources close to yours truly were all saying the same thing: a January 27th Apple event was going to happen (with a major product announcement in tow), and the word was that a beta of iPhone OS 4.0 had already been given to developers complete with a "simulator" for reformatting and resizing apps. Yes, the evidence was truly piling up this time. The next day, a 2008 patent application emerged detailing Apple's dalliances with zooming about in 3D employing multitouch -- and while it didn't necessarily have anything at all to do with the tablet, well, one could extrapolate and dream. Things took a slight turn for the zany next, with Silicon Alley Insider spouting some wisdom-slaying quotes from a "source" who had "seen it" such as "it's a big iPhone, but it's not just a big iPhone" and "it's pretty." AppleInsider also opined that the device would be fit for multiple carriers, though Verizon Wireless was going to get preference, or possibly first dibs on the damned thing. Then just as we were boarding our plane home from Sin City and CES 2010, French blog Nowhere Else published a report of Orange executive Stéphane Richard seemingly confirming that the tablet existed, simultaneously giving a "yay" to the fact that it boasted a webcam. He, like so many before him, later recanted and said he was taken out of context... but really, no one cared. Up next, AppleInsider detailed a globe-encompassing shortage of 10.1-inch OLED and LCD displays because of the tablet's production, and some even began to opine -- based a newly-filed patent application -- that the mythic slate might sport handwriting recognition.

On January 13th blog Valleywag offered a bounty of some of its parent company Gawker Media's cash -- up to $100,000 for photos or a chance to fondle the elusive tablet -- though as of this writing the only thing it's produced is a snippy letter from Apple's lawyers pointing out that inducing people to break their NDAs isn't exactly "legal." Then on January 18th, the official word came from Apple that there would, indeed, be an event on January 27th at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco (points to Paczkowski for totally nailing the date), and the same day, Engadget pal and Fox News reporter Clayton Morris said his source close to Apple was tipping at a three-pronged presentation for the 27th: iLife, iPhone OS 4.0, and yes, a tablet. The internet indulged itself in the opportunity to read into Apple's "come see our latest creation" quote what it could (and likewise found Rorschach-style meanings in the graphic which accompanied the press release), and while it was pretty clear at this point that a product would indeed be announced... well, nothing was necessarily much clearer than it had been back in 2004. The Wall Street Journal added another fun bit to the day by reporting that Apple was deep in talks with Harper Collins for a tablet e-book deal. Over the next few days, we heard plenty: the China Times said that the tablet would be 9.7-inches (a previously heard size) while Ars Technica disputed previous rumors that the tablet would boast an AMOLED screen by astutely pointing out that no 10.1-inch AMOLEDs are actually in production. Peter Kafka seemed to know something... and it seemed to involve the New York Times, Disney and "enhanced" e-books, and MacRumors dug deep enough to find a long, drawn out tale of Apple seemingly registering for a trademark on the name iPad (which we had, alas, heard in the past). There are : another unquestionably fake image (or a real image that's been doctored!?), a Tweet in a language we can't read, by someone possibly pretending to be a European retail chain, spraying some knowledge about pricing that's probably incorrect.

At the beginning of last week, we were treated to some possibly real but extremely terrible photos of the 10-inch glass front of the tablet courtesy of the Mac Observer, while some analysts seemed to be thinking that it was now possible that the tablet wouldn't be available until June of this year because of battery life issues, supply chain problems, or maybe even global warming. 9to5Mac got in on the game for the UK, suggesting it would hit the Queen's shores with subsidization. Most recently, we've heard the P.A. Semi processor part of the specifications tale reavowed, plus some tell via the Wall Street Journal of the tablet's ability to act as a gaming device (with collaboration from Electronic Arts), e-reader (with help from the aforementioned New York Times, Conde Nast and Harper Collins), television subscription plans, a web-based version of iTunes, and a bunch of other no brainers... if you're devising the best device in the whole entire world. With our morning coffee today has just come what seems like a New York Times piece confirming 3G and WiFi on this thing, but at this point... well, maybe we just imagined that article.

And that brings us to now: present-day earth.

So, you may be wondering -- what does it all mean? As you can no doubt see from the information elaborately and lovingly collected above, with regards to Apple's plans, there are far more question marks than solid answers. And when we say "far more," we mean that there are pretty much no solid answers. However, if you take a long, hard look at this data, you certainly begin to see patterns emerging; a February or March release, a 10-inch display, lots of media partnerships lined up, inventive new user interface ideas. We'd like to think that the key to understanding Apple's plans lies in seeing those patterns, but the company is more clever than that. More than once they've completely upended what we expected, delivering something decidedly different altogether. The one thing you can take to the bank is that Apple has expertly played this game -- a game the company all but invented -- and it plays for keeps.

So what can we expect on Wednesday? Will it be the mythical tablet of analysts' dreams, the ultimate fanboy accessory, the culmination of Steve Jobs' and Jonathan Ive's hardest work? We know for sure that not all of the above rumor-mongers can be right -- but we'd also like to believe that somewhere in that stew lies a little bit of truth. If we were the wagering type, we'd tell you that this is a gamble where the safest bet is no bet at all -- but that's why we'll all be watching. Right Steve?

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