What is it about tablets?
Apple's introduction Wednesday of its new iPad -- the jokes have already begun about the name and feminine hygiene -- was just the latest in what has been one of the most enduring obsessions in high tech history.
I'm not sure exactly why tablets are so appealing. Perhaps it's because they harken back to the natural human tendency to write and draw on the nearest flat wall or stone or scrap of wood. Or maybe it's a kind of cultural memory from the days of cuneiform writing on slabs of drying mud, or marking with chalk on a piece of slate in a one-room schoolhouse. Whatever the reason, the dream of a smart, interactive tablet is almost as old as electronics itself.
The first time most of us encountered such a smart pad was, as is often the case, in science fiction -- in particular, "Star Trek" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."
But even then, some very smart dreamers were already at work on developing the real thing. The best known of these was Alan Kay, who, Zelig-like, seemed to always find himself at the hottest places in tech during the '60s, '70s and '80s. First he was at MIT studying under the legendary Marvin Minsky; then at ARPA at the time it was creating the Internet; then at Xerox PARC when it was creating the operating system that would eventually become both the Apple OS and Microsoft Windows; then at Apple under John Sculley as a company fellow.
Along the way, Kay first devised, then became obsessed with, and finally became the leading missionary (some would say Pied Piper) for a kind of smart tablet he called the "Dynabook." Why the Dynabook proved to be such a beguiling notion that it haunted, and still haunts, the electronics industry would be the subject of a great sociology dissertation. Again, I think it has to do with it sitting right at the nexus of what is technologically possible and something deep and elemental in human nature.
Whatever the reason, the Dynabook became a kind of Grail object for the tech world -- and it has spent billions of dollars of the last quarter-century in its pursuit ... with little to show for it.
The first person to wholly surrender to the Dynabook dream was John Sculley, then CEO of Apple Computer after Steve Jobs' first departure. Sculley was a veteran businessman, but a neophyte to high technology -- and was deeply self-conscious about that fact, always feeling that his fellow Silicon Valley executives weren't taking him seriously. For Sculley, the Dynabook was to be both his home run product and his legitimization. It would earn for him respect from his peers, earn him, at last, a reputation for being a tech innovator, and in the process, be his own personal Macintosh -- that is, would make the world forget Steve Jobs.
Sculley even paid for the creation of an expensive, Spielbergesque promotional film that offered a vision of what the ultimate Dynabook would be like. It was a damn impressive movie. In retrospect, it was an early glimpse of both laptop computers and online avatars. But the technology was beyond anything that Apple, or any company of that era, could execute.
And that became obvious when Apple finally did produce its first smart tablet, the Newton. It wasn't a bad little device, and might have had a future of ever-improved generations, if Steve Jobs hadn't returned to Apple and killed it.