Steve Jobs explains why Apple wasn’t keen on tablet computing back in 2003

Thu, Sep 1, 2011

Apple History, Featured, News

Apple didn’t release the first tablet computer or even come up with the idea for tablet computing itself. If anything, Microsoft, and Bill Gates in particular, were championing tablet computers years before the iPad was released.

In this video clip from the first All Things D conference in 2003, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs explains to Walt Mossberg why Apple, at the time, wasn’t keen on tablets and more specifically, why Jobs felt that stylus computing and handwriting recognition were inherent failures. Is it any surprise that Jobs referenced a stylus as a punchline during his 2007 iPhone introduction?

In any event, when asked by Mossberg about potential plans to release a tablet, Jobs explained that Apple had “no plans at the current time to make a tablet.”

When Mossberg made reference to Microsoft’s own tablet efforts, Jobs laid out his qualms about tablet computing.

Well i mean i think that they’re trying but it turns out that, I would characterize it a little bit differently than Bill [Gates]. Bill characterizes it as a device you can take to meet and take notes with. Well I see people with notebook computers at every meeting I go to, taking notes.

So I don’t think that’s what it’s about.

I think it’s about handwriting input versus a keyboard. And, handwriting recognition has been tried over and over again and even when you get it really good, it turns out Apple, believe it or not, after all that pain they went through with Newton, has the best handwriting technology in the world now. It’s way better than anything else.

You know the problem? It doesn’t matter. It’s really slow to write stuff. You know, you could never keep up with your email if you had to write it all out.

And so, it turns out people want keyboards. I mean, when I started in this business one of the biggest challenges was that people couldn’t type. And one day we realized that death would eventually take care of this. And so, people know how to type now. And if you do email of any volume, you gotta have a keyboard.

So we look at the tablet and we think it’s gonna fail.

When Mossberg brought up the utility of using a tablet as a reading device, Jobs responded:

It’s really true, if you’ve got a bunch or rich guys who can afford their third computers. You know they’ve got their desktop, they got a portable, and now they got one of these to read with, that’s your market.

People accuse us of niche markets!

It’s also worth pointing out that when Steve Jobs spoke at the All Things D conference in 2010, he explained how the idea for the iPhone was borne out of a tablet project.

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23 Comments For This Post

  1. Takeshi Says:

    What a trip to read “FORMER Apple CEO Steve Jobs”

  2. JC Says:

    Cant you just post a youtube link? The video does not work.

  3. Meridies Says:

    What about the Apple Newton or Messagepad? Surely that was at least the forerunner to tablet computers? Jobs even mentions it in that quote. He’s effectively saying that the reason Apple failed in the realm of tablet computers before is that they got their user base wrong – consumers not businesses were the real target market. Accordingly they had to create a consumer device not an enterprise one.

  4. Matthew Earley Says:

    How true and insightful. I had the pleasure of working with Nextstep as a contractor doing driver development for clients. While I have moved onto computer networking, the perspectives which I have gained have enabled me to start many ventures. It is very hard to start any one of them without referencing the Steve Jobs way of thinking and being. The embodiment of thought from the perspective of others leads to his ability to judge markets and as a predictor of the future.

    Despite my fascination with Steve, I have not been an Apple user, as I am a practical network geek which until very recently screamed for the most part “Windows PC”.

    The other day I picked up a tablet for my wife as a surprise gift. The gravity of the iPad 2 is undeniable, for it’s critical mass of applications, ease of use and so-on enabled me to pay double what the competition goes for. It makes sense at this time, and I have become well-off enough to be that “rich guy with the 3rd computer”. Fortunately it is all relative, and I was able to enter this market at a price that is approachable, and the value is realized in usability.

    Steve is rich because he knew he could win me over at some point, and it was up to me to reach that point. We collided in the retail sector, and it was he who knew it all along, while I did not. Stil, thank you Steve ;-)

  5. Meridies Says:

    What about the Apple Newton or Messagepad? Surely that was at least the forerunner to tablet computers? Jobs even mentions the Newton in his quote. He’s effectively saying that the reason Apple failed in the realm of tablet computers before is that they got their user base wrong – consumers not businesses were the real target market. Accordingly they had to create a consumer device not an enterprise one. The idea behind this quote, if anything, could be the root cause of the reinvention of the tablet computer by Apple.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    This observation about Apple decrying some technology they later adopted them selves (read: hypocrisy) is so common in Apple’s history. It certainly didn’t start with tablet computers, or even the MP3 player.

  7. Marc Smith Says:

    Apple’s Newton wasn’t a tablet computer, nor was it meant to be. It was essentially what was at the time called a PDA. Job’s point was that they learned handwriting vs. a keyboard was problematic. To say Apple failed in the realm of tablet computers using the Newton as an example is an invalid argument.

  8. m Says:

    The great visionary! No one ever thought Sony’s lineup of walkman devices could be beat, and they were and have faded away. No one thinks the current lineup of “i” devices can be beat, but thay they will. The “i” devices rely heavily on being a status symbol, which means they are more subject to popular opinion than technical marvel. Eventually the status will fade, just wait.

  9. Randall Says:

    Anonymous Says:
    September 1st, 2011 at 2:30 pm
    This observation about Apple decrying some technology they later adopted them selves (read: hypocrisy) is so common in Apple’s history. It certainly didn’t start with tablet computers, or even the MP3 player.

    Really? fanboy comments aside, the iPad isn’t hypocritical in regards to these statements, its default method of input isn’t handwriting recognition but typing on a non-tactile keyboard, most interaction is limited to that of a finger pointing and the majority of those I see using them are doing so as a third device; it should be important to note, he took nearly all of his criticisms and applied them to a finished product, what are you doing with yours?

  10. Cliff Says:

    Yes, Bill Gates was a champion of tablet computing, but that was after Microsoft stole the idea from GO Corp. circa 1991 and then used Microsoft’s partner relationships to drive GO out of business. GO was not the originator of the idea, which is a pretty obvious idea anyway, but they were the first to create a practical design and bring it to market. Just wanted to set the record straight. See the wikipedia article on GO: “https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/GO_Corp.”

  11. Michael J. Bennett Says:

    I wish there was an article like this for EVERY product that people think Steve Jobs/Apple invented, when merely they made the devices accessible, or just ripped them off:
    Smart Phones, Gestures, Mice, Portable MP3 players, Fonts, GUIs, Cloud Computing.

    Steve Jobs was a brilliant marketer, and he had an equally brilliant knack for recognizing barriers between people and technology.

  12. Jerzy Kaltenberg Says:

    The man’s not dead yet, too early to write epitaphs. Reminds one of that fameous 640K quote. Personally, I find the tablet to be useless & oversized, but then the Ipad isn’t meant to be a work platform. One can’t effectively code without a keyboard, at least not yet, but even if it were possible, why carry around something the size of a laptop with less functionality ?

  13. 1 Says:

    “Apple’s Newton wasn’t a tablet computer, nor was it meant to be. It was essentially what was at the time called a PDA. Job’s point was that they learned handwriting vs. a keyboard was problematic. To say Apple failed in the realm of tablet computers using the Newton as an example is an invalid argument.”

    I’m not sure that I’d call it an invalid argument. Clearly, there is a parallel between the Newton and tablet computers, and this is not just form factor. The iPad is however more similar to a PDA than a tablet computer in the sense that it does not offer to do everything. By contrast, the Compaq tablet was a fully-functional PC in the form of a tablet. I’d say that the real issue here is that both PDAs and tablet devices were and are intended to revolutionise mobile computing. In that context, Jobs can be read as talking about the overall failures of attempts to bring such a device, call it whatever you like, to a mass market. One such failure was the hand writing recognition as innovatively implemented in the Newton: people want keyboards or a system that they don’t have to learn to use. As Jobs said there was a time when people didn’t know how to use a keyboard. Apple realised that with the right input technology an on-screen keyboard can be as good as the hardware alternative.

  14. Andrés Says:

    Direct link to the video:

    http://video.allthingsd.com/video/steve-jobs-at-d1-we-think-the-tablet-gonna-fail/641F850D-8198-4D9F-A207-F2DE23C33738

  15. Michael Jahn Says:

    People do not want to write on a tablet, But they do not want to type either. Speech to text trumps them both. Google FTW ! (on anything, including iPhones, iPads, iEct…

  16. John Says:

    When apple had the newton, I bought a PalmIII. Why? The handwriting recognition in the newton was SLOWWW and often just inaccurate. The grafitti on the palm was perfect, and simpler, so it didn’t need as much poet to work well. In fact, grafitti is still more accurate then even digital ink on my windows tablet.
    As for a third computer, yup, my wife has a desktop I built, I use a Mac mini, and the tablet is my third computer, maybe even my fourth after my iPhone, or 5th after my server and NAS. At NZ$700 was about the same price as a good suit, and is just so much more convenient than my work provided laptop. Why? The virtual keyboard is fast enough. The only compromise is the loss of screen space when typing. if I did more typing, I might consider a keyboard, but have to weigh that up against loss of convenience and more hassle keeping another devices batteries charged.

  17. Clif Says:

    But it’s not meant for coding; it’s a simple, consumer level, input device.

  18. Izzy Says:

    I wish I could smack every commenter who uses the word “ripped off” against Microsoft OR Apple. Screw you guys. Seriously. There are a lot of good ideas floating around out there. If a company figures out how to make it enticing to consumers – power to them. If a small company were able to squat on a good idea that could be useful to the world – who really loses?

  19. Bazz Says:

    I’ve just found a photo of “Mac Bashful” circa 1983 yes 1983 its a tablet mac with keyboard and other things attached but looks like they’re separable. So Jobs has forgotten the Bashful Mac.
    What made the iPad a success is that everything was ready and waiting — Good CPU, ubiquitous net, Apple’s App store and WiFi or Cell phones, just needs a good battery life.

  20. Guspaz Says:

    People need to remember just what a “tablet” was at the time. It was a laptop with the screen reversed… Sometimes it was just a laptop with a rotatable screen. The things were not scaled up smartphone-class hardware running ARM SoCs, they were complete x86 laptop computers, and they weighed a ton. We’re talking 6+ pounds here. By comparison, the iPad 2 weighs in at 1.33 lbs.

    Jobs was right about the reasons the early tablets failed. One was the mistake of trying to make them out of laptops (high price, large and heavy). Another was, as he pointed out, handwriting recognition (nice for taking notes in math class, not so nice for much of anything else, unless you’re an artist). The form factor was just wrong, and the software wasn’t there yet.

  21. Steve K. Says:

    Steve Jobs never tried the Jot from Adonit
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpwfoEk0-bY

  22. Shayne o Says:

    I actually think the interviewer in that has the most insightful comment. Heck I almost wonder if Steve walked off stage with a giant lightbulb above his head. Forget input, a tablet makes a great *reading* device. I love my iPad , but I do very little input on it, and use it mostly as a web browser and pdf/ebook reader. I think Amazon really need some credit with all this. Those nutty little kindles might have been low-tech but holy-moly did they hit the spot for what they where about;- reading. Actually they are probably BETTER to read off. Its just all they do is read ebooks.

    If Apple could come up with a display that combined the ultra readability of the kindle, with color AND backlight, it’d be the gizmo of the century.

    Also angry birds. Must have angry birds.

  23. Vanners Says:

    I’ve been saying this since the iPad came out. It’s not a new idea; 10 years before the iPad there was the tablet PC and before that PDAs that did what the first iPad would do except you could fit it in your pocket.

    Everyone keeps talking about the tablet PC failure – I just don’t get it. I’m on my third tablet PC – this one’s a convertable, my first two were slates and no they did not weigh a ton. The reason why I am not getting an iPad is pretty much the same reason I don’t want my right hand amputated – I have a better device and don’t want to lose half the functionality for the sake of a “few pounds”.

    Jobs made it all about the weight just like Tom Sawyer made it all about the fun – you can’t sell white washing as white washing so you change the playing field. Tomato Sauce (Ketchup for you Americans) used to come out of the bottle easily, but then one day a company produced a nice product that oozed instead of ran like their competitors did – this made it difficult to use but difficult to sell, so they changed the playing field – a few ads later and oozing was desirable because it was “rich” and “full of tomatoes”.

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