My First Tablet

First Grade at Ranch Heights in Bartlesville Oklahoma

Way back in 1963 I ventured out from the security of the nest to experience first grade at Ranch Heights Elementary School. It was a big deal for certain. Who were all those new people? Why were we made to go there?  Wasn't it more comfortable at home? Were we really expected to eat that food? There were so many unanswered questions for the newly appointed first grader. Questions aside, we were there and we weren't turning back. Thank goodness my first grade teacher, Mrs Cramer, was a decent and caring person. She made us all feel at home. Can you imagine what it would have been like if she had delivered on the evil-schoolmarm vision that filled the minds of most new first grade students? Rumor had it that Mrs.Castleman, another teacher at Ranch Heights, ceremoniously kissed each child before they headed home at the end of the day. The mere thought of being systematically lined up and kissed by her sent shock waves through the entire student body. In addition to the unique personalities and experiences, part of the elementary school indoctrination was the ritual of  shopping for school supplies  Armed with a blurred mimeographed list of supplies, my mom skillfully guided her tiny shopping cart through the TG&Y store looking for the prescribed supplies.  "No David, it specifically calls for the 10 count crayon set, not the set of 64" explained my Mom. Did this really matter? The 64 color set certainly looked better to me, it had far more interesting colors and it sported a nifty built-in sharpener. Being the thrill seeker that she is, we bought the 64 color set.  Thanks Mom.

TG and Y store

Was $1.00 really the highest priced item at the TG&Y?

One of the oddest items on the list eventually became my first tablet. It was strangely called a "Big Chief " tablet. What in the world was that? Growing up in North Eastern Oklahoma, we all wondered what Indians had to do with it. Turns out it was a poorly bound tablet of  very low quality paper with exceptionally wide rules. I guess they thought the rules would help guide you through the painstaking exercise of learning to write properly. In my opinion penmanship was one of the most tedius punishments ever devised by educators. The unbleached paper was nearly impossible to write on, tore frequently, and even smelled bad. It had a kind of musty odor. How could anyone think this helped the higher education cause? To make matters worse, we were expected to write on this thing with what was called a Laddie Pencil. For those of you who don't know, these were extra large diameter pencils. I suppose someone decided that small hands required a huge pencil. They didn't even fit into a normally sized pencil sharpener. Curiously enough, they also had no eraser. I guess we were expected to never make a mistake. The "Big Chief" tablet was all about content creation. A brief story, penmanship practice, simple diagrams, or a crude sketch were what mattered in the first grade tablet world. We certainly didn't read from it. Reading was done primarily from rudimentary wonders such as the popular Dick and Jane series. Who can ever forget such literary masterpiece phrases as " See Dick run. " Today it would be turned into an acronym like SDR.


The Big Chief Tablet was pencil based and wireless

The infamous Laddie pencil required you to bring your own eraser

Later in life I was fortunate enough to have been given a much more creative tablet than the infamous "Big Chief" version. I'm not certain of the year, it must have been in the early 1960's, but I certainly remember the product. The tablet was the Etch A Sketch by Ohio Arts. An Etch A Sketch is a thick, flat gray screen in a bright red plastic frame. There are two white knobs on the front of the frame in the lower corners. Twisting the knobs moves a stylus that displaces aluminum powder on the back of the screen, leaving a solid black line. The knobs create lineaographic images, not so different from a crude computer plotter. The left control moves the stylus horizontally, and the right one moves it vertically. This tablet was a real breakthrough, it promoted creativity! Okay it was a bit frustrating to try to draw a diagonal line, but it was part of the whole creation experience. I remember a friend of mine set a goal to color the entire screen black  so that he could discover the inner workings of what made the magic happen. He never quite finished before someone mistakingly erased his time consuming quest. Creativity was what the Etch A Sketch was all about.


Think creativity when you think about this breakthrough tablet design

Many years later, I was exposed to what is probably the next milestone tablet in my life. It was my first IBM tablet.  Oddly enough it was called a THINK pad, although it was clearly not a computer, and it was certianly not black. I carried one for nearly 20 years while I worked at IBM. It was all so handy for jotting down a note to myself, capturing a phone number, or of course drawing a quick sketch of some design idea. I can still remember pulling it out in the hallway at IBM to sketch the design of a System/36 control panel in front of the responsible engineer. I'm not sure he had ever seen someone draw a sketch before, he was much more comfortable with circuit diagrams and numbers. I still have the pad tucked away in a drawer someplace. It contains a nice list of outdated phone number, some old passwords, and a few very old sketches. Refills for the pad were free from IBM by just dropping them a line requesting one. Somehow I think the address listed is no longer fulfilling the refill requests. The patina on the leather cover is a priceless reminder of my many career experiences at IBM. As the personal computer and cell phone became more and more important in my life, and career, the friendly well worn pocket sized notepad became less relevant. I found myself sticking it in my pocket more out of habit than true necessity. It was time to move on to a new generation ThinkPad and retire my old leather friend. Sometimes change is hard, but in this case it made good sense.


My first THINK pad was the ultimate in portable content creation

The first computer branded ThinkPad was in fact a pen based tablet. It was not a clamshell notebook. Called the ThinkPad T700, it was launched in 1992 for a vertical market application. Howard Dulany, a current Lenovo software marketing manager, worked on it when he lived in Boca Raton. You can watch a short video of Howard talking about the first ThinkPad here.  It seems an insurance company had a need for a portable device optimized for filling out claim forms, and IBM was prepared to deliver a solution. It contained a huge number of innovations including magnesium construction, integrated heat sink technology, solid state storage, and of course a pen based operating system.The design point, however, was not so different from my red framed Etch A Sketch. Thankfully a stylus replaced the somewhat frustrating white knobs for manipulating content on the slate user interface.  The device was a bit ahead of it's time, but lacked the ability to drive much in the way of content creation. It was pretty much about simple forms. Since those early days we launched the first ThinkPad convertible tablet in early 2005. Called the ThinkPad X41 Tablet, it quickly became the tablet of choice for demanding business applications. Sure we designed and released something called the TransNote a few years earlier, but it failed to register on the radar as anything more than an off target technology driven oddity. We learn from our mistakes. With the  X41 our refined offering finally got the balance right between viewing, annotating and creating content. Practice makes perfect. With all the recent interest in tablets, it will be interesting to see how this market continues to develop. Is the IdeaPad U1 hybrid the answer? I certainly endorse the concept of allowing choice for how people use their devices. I also support optimization of form factor to task. The U1 does both of these. I'm honestly not certain that a content consumption focused slate is the answer. It sounds far too compromising to me. No matter what happens in the market, I still think content creation is just as important as consumption. What did you expect?  I love to design things. Where did I put my crayons anyway?

David Hill