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Nothing new under the sun?

The Intel PAD, or Intel Web Tablet

The recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the site of a 'tablet frenzy' as some 80 devices were launched by product developers desperate to cash in on the phenomenal success of Apple's iPad.
But those with a longer memory will know that, while the technology the powers the iPad is certainly new, the concept is anything but. In fact, one of the first suggestions for such as device came in the mid 1990s from National Semiconductor, which floated the idea of the information appliance (IA): a low cost, high performance device that would sell in its 'hundreds of millions' and which would 'displace the pc'.

To be fair to Brian Halla, who was then National's president, he had the right idea, but at the wrong time. He believed we were about to embrace the information age by buying 'low cost devices that will enable us to embrace information wherever we are'. In particular, he thought IAs would be bought by those who didn't have, or didn't want, a pc.
But a number of hurdles stood in the way of creating this low cost pc killer – the target price was an ambitious $200, compared to $1000 for what would be seen today as a hopelessly underpowered pc. The display was one problem – performance at the time was relatively poor and even small displays were expensive – the operating system was another challenge, but the biggest problem was the processor: Halla believed the IA could be powered by an x86 based SoC equipped with a 16k cache and manufactured on a 0.25µm process. "It's doable," he said. "We've reduced the task from an intellectual scavenge to execution." Integration of rf communications was the next stage.
Good idea, but no cigar; the IA never saw the light of day.
National wasn't the only company sniffing around this area. Intel was quietly taking a look at the possibilities; its work was boosted by the acquisition of the StrongARM processor following the collapse of Digital Equipment.
Intel has now given a peek behind the curtains at its efforts to develop what it says was the first IPAD (see picture). Known internally as the Intel PAD, the official name for the device was the Intel Web Tablet. Designed around a StrongARM 1110 processor, it featured the VxWorks real time operating system, an embedded browser, software for rich audio and Intel's Strataflash memory for code and data storage. Users controlled the device using a stylus – there was no keyboard.
Intel was concerned about the price of the display and of the lithium ion batteries and had a working price of $500. But problems started rearing their heads – software was late and the price started rising. It didn't make it to market; the project was shut down in late 2001, even though devices had been made and were ready for the shops.
It's only now that technology has enabled the manufacture of the internet appliance or internet enabled device. But one critical move may have held tablets back by a decade. Andy Grove, Intel founder and chairman at the time, decided that instead of pushing the device into the Intel Developer community and allowing variants to be built by OEMs, it should be launched as an Intel branded product.
Had Grove decided to take the OEM route, the market might look a lot different today.
What all this shows is the gulf between having a good idea and delivering a product to market that meets user needs at a sensible price. Halla and Intel both saw the opportunity for what has turned out to be the iPad, but it was the right idea at the wrong time.

Graham Pitcher

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