The Wireless Generation: A Look at Tablets and Their Predecessors

Typewriters, telegraphs, telephones, radios, computers, calculators, and more. All of these things can be held in our palm to be used just about anywhere in the world. Smart phones and tablets have become popular for those who are looking for a lightweight alternative to their notebook computer or PC.  What benefits do tablets provide over using other devices? How did this device come about?

What are tablets and why do we use them?

Tablet computers (known popularly as tablets) are lightweight, portable devices with large touchscreens as a source of imput. Similar to the smartphone in concept, tablets have much more computing power and storage capacity. However, they do not have the processing power of personal computers (PCs) or laptops (Cortimiglia, Frank, & Seben, 2013). In the mid-1990s, the tablet format was tested by Newton and Apple and popularized by Microsoft; the design ultimately failed due to limited performance, usability, and commercial success (MacNeill, 1998; Cortimiglia, Frank, & Seben, 2013). The essential ideas behind the personal digital assistant (PDA) were desirable: portable, pen-based, inexpensive, and learns about the user to make informed assumptions (MacNeill, 1998). Microsoft’s Tablet PC launched in 2001 and failed to sell effectively due to their design, but the concept sparked companies like Nokia, Samsung, and HewlettPackard (HP) to experiment with this format (Cortimiglia, Frank, & Seben, 2013).

Currently, tablets are primarily advertised for entertainment purposes. Usually they are built with high-definition color displays, which allows enjoyment and clarity while watching content, using applications, or playing games (Cortimiglia, Frank, & Seben, 2013). estimated that purchases of tablets will more than triple this year from 13 million units in 2012 to about 53 million units. “In 2016, two-thirds of the mobile workforce will own a smartphone, and 40 percent of the workforce will be mobile,” said a representative (Gartner, 2012).  A Nielson poll lists the reasons why people use these devices, some of them being that they are portable, their operating system (OS) is easy to use, they are quick to start up/shut off, and they are convenient, small, and lightweight (Newswire, 2011).

What innovations did we need to surpass to get to today’s tablet computers?

In 1977, experimental cellular systems were launched in Chicago, Illinois, and the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. This lead to the first commercial cellular systems in 1983. That same year, Motorola created the DynaTAC mobile telephone unit (also known as “the brick”), the first “mobile” radiotelephone; it only allowed for one hour of talk time approximately every 8 hours. By 1985, 340,213 people had cell phones (CTIA).

In 1988, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)’s Auxilliary Cellular Services Order adopts technical flexibility rules for cellular radio, which allowed the introduction of advanced cellular technologies and brought subscription rates up to 5 million in 1990 and over 10 million in 1992. In 1993, IBM announces Simon, the first smart phone, which contains basic functions such as email, a calendar, and an address book.  By 1995, approximately 13% of the United States has a cell phone, which rises to 38% five years later (CTIA).  In 2002, camera phones make their American debut.

By this time, wireless has overtaken analog systems, becoming a topic of discussion, and notebook computers are competing with desktops (Cortimiglia, Frank, & Seben, 2013). Congress puts in place the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act  and the Spectrum Relocation Fund to recover costs from relocating certain radio communication systems. iPhone launches in 2007, and this is the beginning of handset innovation. By 2009, approximately 91% of Americans are wireless subscribers, prompting Palm, Blackberry, Nokia, and Windows to open their app stores. The next year, President Obama signs a memorandum committing to freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum for the wireless industry, followed by his National Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative to expand wireless coverage in 2011 (CTIA).


Cortimiglia, M., Frank, A., & Seben, L. (2013). Tablets: The Next Disruptive Computing Technology? IT Professional, 15(3), 18-25.

Gartner (2012). Gartner Says 821 Million Smart Devices Will Be Purchased Worldwide in 2012; Sales to Rise to 1.2 Billion in 2013.” (2012, November 6). Retrieved February 12, 2016, from

MacNeill, D. (1998). Pen Computing Magazine: Why did Apple kill the Newton? Retrieved February 12, 2016, from

Newswire . (2011, May 5). Retrieved February 12, 2016, from


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