Behind the iPad: 4 Decades of Clever Technology

Apple's iPad, a touch-screen computer that falls between a laptop and a smartphone, is almost here. But contrary to Cupertino mythology, the iPad didn’t sprout from Steve Jobs’ forehead fully formed. There were a number of critical events stretching back nearly 40 years that helped pave a path for the iPad.

ARPANET

Before there was Facebook, Twitter or the Internet in general, there was ARPANET, a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project initially conceived as a way to allow academic and military computers to communicate with one another. ARPANET was the first computer network to employ a technology called "packet switching," which the Internet uses today. Packet switching allows a message to be broken up into data chunks and sent through multiple routes to another computer. Once all the chunks arrive at their destination, they are reassembled into the original message. The first ARPANET message was sent on October 29, 1969 from a computer in Los Angeles to one at the Stanford Research Institute in northern California.

GUI

Apple’s introduction of the Macintosh in 1984 with its graphical user interface (GUI) puts a human face on computing.

Laptops

Computers users bridled at being tethered to the office. They were finally able to escape their bonds and get off the grid in between charges in 1989 when both Apple and Compaq introduce battery-powered notebook computers within a month of each other. Earlier portable computers such as the Osborne 1, the first commercially successful portable computer introduced in 1981, would not be recognized as laptops by contemporary users. The Osborne tipped the scales at 23.5 pounds.

Mobile Chips

Any device that lives on batteries is at the mercy of its appetite for power. Its processor has the heartiest appetite. And as mobile computing devices get smaller and smaller, there’s less room for batteries to satisfy that appetite. The solution for matching supply and demand is to develop processor chips that require less juice. Beginning in the 1990s, ARM, then known as Advanced RISC Machines, created a new generation of power-parsimonious chips. Intel introduced its own low-power chip architecture with the Atom chipset in 2008 and Qualcomm launched its ARM-based Snapdragon in 2009. The iPad will use Apple’s own custom CPU that incorporates ARM-based technology.

Newton/PDAs

Apple has always stubbornly sought to "think different," but it decided to think small when it launched its first hand-held device, the Newton Message Pad, in 1993. The Newton created a new category of device — the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). The touch-screen device had an address book, calendar and an e-mail function. It also carried a $700 price tag and flopped. Palm took the same idea and hung a $300 price tag on its Palm Pilot, which it introduced in 1996. Palm saw sales — and the entire PDA market — soar.

Smartphones

What would happen if you combined a cell phone with a PDA? That’s what IBM did in 1992 with its Simon smartphone concept. Cell phone manufacturer Nokia brings that concept to life with its Nokia 9000 in 1996. (See 3 best smartphones you can buy.)

Tablets

Tablet computers started out as pen-based computing slabs without a keyboard. Users loved the form factor but balked at using a stylus as their interface with the computer. The GRiDPad, introduced in 1989, was the first commercially available tablet-style portable. They never really caught on. The convertible laptop is a more popular hybrid that functions either as a conventional laptop with keyboard or as a pen-based computer in tablet mode.

iTunes

Downloading files and software has been with us a long time. But when Apple launches its iTunes store in 2003, it revolutionizes how people get and consume digital information, entertainment and applications. iTunes was also a major factor in the success of Apple's portable music player, the iPod. Working together as a single "ecosystem," iTunes and iPods created a seamless software and hardware solution for gathering music and playing it on the go.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is a lot like the old client-server mainframe world. Computing power and storage are consolidated on powerful servers that are accessed through dedicated lines or over the Internet. The cloud became much more visible in 2002 when Amazon began offering Amazon Web Services, a collection of remote computing services that could be accessed over the Internet. Devices such as netbooks, smartphones and the iPad don’t have removable storage drives. For them, the Cloud is the most convenient way to get information in or out of their devices.

iPhone

Apple practices convergence with a vengeance in 2007 when it introduces the iPhone. It instantly becomes an object of desire for millions and introduces users to multi-touch touch-screen control.

Netbooks

Taiwanese computer manufacturer Asus creates a new form-factor category, the netbook, when it introduces the Eee PC 700 in 2007. The best way to think of a netbook is as a lightweight, smaller-screen version of a laptop, which has a long battery life but no removable storage drive. Like the iPad, it lives and breathes though the cloud.

Ebook Readers

Amazon scores a major hit in 2007 with its Kindle, a dedicated ebook reader with 3G connectivity that let users download books from Amazon's vast inventory of books in seconds. Competitors such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook soon join the party. This stakes out a new arena for digital consumption — books.

The iPad

The iPad is a combination of all of the above, fitting into the space between smartphones and laptops but without the phone. True believers are convinced it will do for mobile devices what opposable thumbs have done for humans [Infographic: The Road to the iPad].