The state of the Slate

As the late January Apple event gets closer, the buzz about the rumoured Apple Tablet is becoming deafening. And some people think that Apple is going to be the last to jump on the tablet/slate bandwagon. Well, think again. From an industrial design standpoint, Apple is doing research in the tablet field at least since the late 1980s. Everyone who knows a bit of Apple history of the past decade will surely have heard of the Newton, at least as a passing mention. The first Newton MessagePad was released in 1993, but the research behind it started as early as 1987. The first Newton ‘slate’ prototypes were codenamed Figaro, and some of them were designed by the renowned Italian industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. There are some wonderful photos of those mockups and prototypes on the essential reference book for all things related to the Apple Industrial Design Group: AppleDesign: The work of the Apple Industrial Design Group by Paul Kunkel (with photographs by Rick English), New York, Graphis, 1997 (Now out of print, sadly).

But the development of the tablet idea and form factor didn’t stop when the first Newton MessagePads appeared. AppleDesign has many interesting images regarding other design investigations, increasingly more mature and refined than the Figaro project itself. I have scanned some of those images and copied some essential passages explaining the ideas which led to those prototypes and I want to show you what Apple was doing in the years 1992-1993 as regards to a possible Tablet. These projects were all cancelled, but in my opinion they demonstrate that 17-18 years ago Apple, design-wise, was many steps ahead of these PC Tablets recently introduced.

Another interesting detail that’s worth noting: Jonathan Ive was involved in almost all of the following projects. He had just started collaborating and working with Apple. I think it’s crucial that the same man who started designing hand-held, slate-like Apple products in 1992, happens to be the same man now leading the Industrial Design division in Apple and is surely responsible of the design of the new rumoured Apple Tablet (or Slate or whatever). Ive has witnessed almost 20 years of evolution of the tablet project inside Apple, and I think this continuity and his expertise are going to be fantastic ingredients in the (hopefully) upcoming tablet.

The following pictures and excerpts, as I mentioned before, are taken from the book AppleDesign: The work of the Apple Industrial Design Group by Paul Kunkel (with photographs by Rick English), New York, Graphis, 1997, and are copyrighted material. Kunkel, English, and Apple Inc. are the copyright holders. The reproduction of these pictures and excerpts is to be considered “fair use”, for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and the material will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s).

I have also maintained the same Plate numbers for reference’s sake.

* * * * *

287

288

289

287, 288, 289. PenMac Hand-Held Computer Concept (Folio) with an integrated stylus, Mac-style user interface, CD-ROM drive and an infrared data terminal. Industrial Design: Apple Computer: Masamichi Udagawa. Dates of Design: August-October 1992 (project cancelled).

304 - 305

306 - 307

308

[In Plate 304 you can see WorkCase from another cancelled project, Juggernaut — Designed by Daniele DeIuliis, it’s a stand-alone computer with a full-sized color pen-addressable LCD, integrated stereo speakers positioned in the upper corners, a central microphone below the screen, a built-in modem with IR and spread-spectrum networking, and an external keyboard for text entry. WorkCase could accept a digital camera and an external hard drive. A leather cover protects the screen, and helps secure the pen as well, giving the concept a high-end business image.]

305, 308. Macintosh Folio, a portable Newton-like slate computer with an integrated stand.

306. Folio Keyboard, which connects to Macintosh Folio to form a desktop computer system. Industrial Design: Tangerine (London): Jonathan Ive.

307. SketchPad, a portable computer with height/tilt adjustable display that folds into a purse-shaped bundle. Dates of Design: April-June 1992.

317

317. Large-Format Newton Concept (Bic). Industrial design: Apple Computer: Marc van de Loo; John Tang and David Lima, product design. Dates of Design: March-August 1993 (project cancelled). [Note the name on the device: Newton MessageSlate]

* * * * *

Folio

During the summer of 1992, all of Apple seemed to be caught up in ‘Newton mania’. Apart from developments occurring within the Newton group itself, the Macintosh division was pursuing its own strategy for a hand-held Newton-like computer that would use the Mac interface, accept a Mac-style keyboard and mouse for desktop use, and (best of all) run Mac-compatible software, which Newton could not. “Once Newton development began to take off in 1992,” says Larry Barbera, “many people assumed that hand-held devices would do to the Macintosh what the Mac did to the Apple II — render it extinct. To counter this thinking, the Macintosh division developed their own Newton-like Macs.” The first concept, called PenLite, was the brainchild of Tom Gillies, who transferred from the Advanced Technology Group to the Portables Group in 1992, taking with him a concept that mated a PowerBook Duo form factor with a touch-sensitive Duo-sized screen. The second concept, known as PenMac, was a tablet-size device based on a Sony CD-ROM electronic book product. To attract interest and venture capital for the idea, PenMac’s chief evangelist Paul Mercer asked Masamichi Udagawa to design an appealing concept model, code-named Folio. “The Mac Group needed a compelling design to differentiate their product from Newton,” Udagawa recalls.

Ignoring the work that Giugiaro had done for the tablet-sized Figaro the year before, Udagawa gave Folio a simple, yet robust industrial-looking exterior. [...] In the process, Udagawa broke new ground in his handling of shapes and surface details that would influence everyone in the Group.

The role of Jonathan Ive

[...] With business at Tangerine booming and prosperity just around the corner, most would assume that Ive had achieved the designer’s dream — true independence. Then, in early 1992, Ive received a telephone call from Bob Brunner, asking Tangerine to supply concepts for an in-house design project, code-named Juggernaut. The exercise included designs for portable computers, docking stations, electronic cameras and a Newton-like personal digital assistant. Within weeks, Ive and his partners developed 25 models, which they presented to Apple in the spring and refined into four principal designs. By the time it was over, Ive was a changed man.

The most interesting of these concepts was Macintosh Folio (305, 308; comparable to Daniele DeIuliis’s WorkCase), which Ive designed as a portable notebook-sized tablet with a touch-sensitive screen, a soft rounded base containing a battery pack, which also served as a palmrest, and an interesting ‘bull nose’ profile when viewed from the side. When tilted in an upright position on its integrated stand, Folio could be used on a desktop when attached to Folio Keyboard (306). Similar to DeIuliis’s Keyboard Station, Ive’s concept functioned as an ‘intelligent keyboard’ with a motherboard, networking ports, a recessed trackpad and infrared connection. Folio Keyboard could also be attached to a height-adjustable LCD screen to form a portable laptop concept called SketchPad (307). Drawing its intelligence from the processor in Folio Keyboard, SketchPad’s articulated screen was both height- and tilt-adjustable and could be folded into a tidy purse-shaped bundle for easy carrying.

[...]

When Brunner invited Ive to join the IDg, no one expected him to accept, if only because Tangerine was one of the fastest-growing design firms in London. But, for Ive, the Apple project had been a transforming experience. “Even though I had done a lot of interesting work up to that time, the issues I encountered on Juggernaut were unlike anything I had dealt with before,” he says. “The principal challenge — to give personality and meaning to a technology that was still being treated as though it were anonymous — interested me a lot. Also important was the fact that Apple offers a supportive environment. It’s the kind of place where a designer can focus less on day-to-day business and more on design as a craft.”

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5 Comments on “The state of the Slate”

  1. This is an amazing round-up. Well done, collecting all these goodies.

    Ive’s designs were very sleek, and very ’90s. Nice to see how his design philosophy has changed over the years.

  2. Matej Horvat says:

    Yeah, Apple has been researching tablets for a long time.
    At WWNC 2009 Larry Yaeger brought one of those PenLite tablets. Sadly we never got around to turn it on. The digitizer, as he said, was dead anyway.

  3. [...] the scenes, Apple was in full tablet mode. They saw it as a potential post-Mac [...]

  4. Jeff Lewis says:

    I was working with Apple on assistive technologies at the time and the company I worked for was being asked to consider developing on screen keyboard technology for the PenMac, which would have been my project.

    I got to hold one of the prototypes in my hands and *almost* had a copy of the PenMac version of MacOS. :)

    Alas, it was killed in favour of the Newton and it never shipped.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. And thank you, Jeff, for sharing your bit of history. I would have loved to see that PenMac-optimised version of Mac OS!

    Cheers,
    Rick


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