Tablet computer: an idea whose time has finally come...

1/26/2010 2:59:00 PM

On the eve of Apple’s expected tablet computer announcement, one thing is clear: tablet computing has been Steve Jobs’ dream for almost as long as anyone can remember. So before we learn just how close the final reality will be to the futuristic predictions of the 1980s, it’s worth exploring what some of those predictions were, and the role that a group of Illinois computer science and electrical engineering graduate students played in those predictions.

Illinois'  winning team (from left): Stephen Wolfram, Stephen Omohundro, Arch Robison (MS 87, PhD 90, CS), Steven Skiena (holding the TABLET) (MS 85, PhD 88, CS), Bartlett Mel (PhD 89, CS), Luke Young (PhD 93, EE), and Kurt Thearling (MS 88, PhD 90 EE).
Illinois' winning team (from left): Stephen Wolfram, Stephen Omohundro, Arch Robison (MS 87, PhD 90, CS), Steven Skiena (holding the TABLET) (MS 85, PhD 88, CS), Bartlett Mel (PhD 89, CS), Luke Young (PhD 93, EE), and Kurt Thearling (MS 88, PhD 90 EE).
In 1987--when the smallest computers took up an entire desktop, and long before the internet and mobile computing changed the way we live and work--Apple sponsored a contest at a dozen universities across the country to design the personal computer of the year 2000. The rules were simple: describe the computer's purpose, predict the technologies that will be available at that time, and how to use them.

The participants were judged on both original thought and how well they illustrated the workability of that thought.

Nearly 1,000 students in teams of up to five entered designs; five teams were chosen as finalists and flown to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California for the final judging on January 28, 1988. The distinguished panel of judges included Ray Bradbury, Alan Kay, Diane Ravitch, Alvin Toffler, and Stephen Wozniak.

After a series of oral presentations, the student team from the University of Illinois was awarded first place in the competition. The Illinois team included computer science PhD students Steven Skiena, Arch Robison, and Bartlett Mel, and electrical engineering PhD students Luke Young and Kurt Thearling

The team’s concept:  a tablet computer. According to their paper, the team sought a computing device that would “fit comfortably into people’s lives while dramatically changing them.” To make this dream a reality, the team decided to improve on something that most people used everyday, a paper notebook.

Here are some of the team’s predictions for how a tablet would look and function:
•    The computer of 2000 will “have the same dimensions as a standard notebook,” and “look like an 8 ½” x 11” monolith from the movie 2001.”
•    The interface would be “a high-resolution touchscreen that yields slightly to the touch”
•    The best input device would be a stylus, with an on-screen keyboard, permitting “the ultimate integration between text and graphics”
•    Handwriting recognition software would be available to convert handwritten notes to type
•    A high resolution color display would support video and video communications
•    Notably, the computer of 2000 would not be based primarily on speech recognition. “Science fiction seems to specialize in talking to computers and listening to what they say,” remarked the authors. “However, people do not really want to talk to computers. In many contexts where a portable computer would be used…talking out loud is not an acceptable behavior.”
•    Peripherals like keyboards, video cameras, and GPS would connect via infrared interfaces

While it remains to be seen how many of these features can be recognized in Apple’s unveiling tomorrow, the prescience of the team is evident in how they see the tablet computer being utilized. From a time when computing was anything but mobile, the team clearly envisioned the implications of mobile computing in terms of productivity, privacy and security, programming abstractions, and entertainment.

In the words of the team, “Our vision is both realizable and desirable. We all want this little machine, and twelve years of engineering will make it a reality. The sooner Apple gets to work on it, the better for everyone.”

Tomorrow, we will see just how close the team’s vision of the future from 1987 comes to the reality of the Apple tablet.

Contact: Jennifer LaMontagne, associate director of communications, Department of Computer Science, 217/333-4049.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, Engineering Communications Office, 217/244-7716, editor.