It had a touch-screen display, was powered by an ARM processor, featured a built-in MP3 player and it let you surf the Internet on your couch. Sound familiar? Think again. This was the Intel PAD or, as it was known internally at the time, the IPAD. It was officially branded the Intel Web Tablet, but it never made it to market.
Amid the tablet frenzy at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show where some 80 new tablets were announced (how many of these may not make it to market is anyone’s guess), we took a stroll down memory lane with some of the Intel employees who developed Intel’s tablet over a decade ago.
The Intel Web Tablet let users connect to their PC and surf the Web from anywhere in the home using Intel’s Anypoint wireless home networking solution. It was not a stand-alone PC but an extended browsing device with some additional applications.
The Intel device ran on an Intel StrongARM 1110 processor, a derivative of the family of ARM microprocessors originally developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation and acquired by Intel under the terms of a 1998 legal settlement. Intel replaced the StrongARM design with a new family of ARM chips aimed primarily at the cellular market under the XScale brand, but then sold off the business to Marvell in 2006 as part of an effort to focus on the core PC and server businesses.
Anywhere in the Home
The idea for a tablet grew out of an initiative in the Intel Labs in the late 1990s called “Anywhere in the Home,” based in part of some ethnographic research the company was just starting as a way of guiding product development.
“We were looking for ways to associate Intel with the Internet and we saw this as an ideal way to make that happen,” said David Cobbley, who headed up engineering on the device and was one of the original three employees who established a start-up inside Intel – the others being David Andersen and Ed Arrington. They became known affectionately as the “Three Amigos.”
“I can remember sitting in the Labs looking at the ethnographic research and kind of yawning, until I saw this pad concept,” said Arrington, who led the marketing effort for the tablet. “I remember seeing the concept of how it could be used in the home, moving it around, using it for content consumption. That was a wake-up call for me. I said ‘Hey that may be an opportunity.’”
Cobbley, Andersen and Arrington went off and developed a business plan and were funded by a nascent group inside Intel designed to help fund and grow new ideas like this one. The year was 1998.
At first, the team worked quietly around an OEM model, in which Intel would develop a reference design for a customer who could bring it to market. But then something happened that raised the stakes and changed everything.
“One of the local TV stations in Portland showed some video from one of our early trials in a local area home,” recalled Andersen, the original general manager and later chief technology officer for the tablet group. “Somehow, that got picked up by an affiliate station in California, where Andy Grove saw it.”
Grove, then Intel’s chairman, wouldn’t necessarily have known about every new business initiative. It was the first he had heard about it, and the next thing they knew, Grove was in Oregon getting a complete download on the project.
“We told Andy our next step was to show it at the Intel Developer Forum,” Andersen said. “Andy said no. He said we’re going to make this an Intel-branded product. We didn’t want to do that, we wanted to go low under the radar and make this an OEM product.”
So the course changed as Grove weighed in. Now, the tablet would be an Intel- branded product. At the time, Intel was also designing and building a host of other branded products, including digital cameras, wireless keyboards and mice, and a line of connected toys with Mattel. Grove saw this as a natural extension of the business that would help sell more PCs.
All of a sudden, the tablet group had a new general manager and considerably more funding. And along with it, a higher profile and higher expectations.
Content Consumption Model
Cobbley said they knew at the time that the cost of LCD displays and Li-Ion batteries would make it an expensive product, so they developed a “walled garden” approach. They struck deals with the likes of Disney and ESPN to help subsidize the device by offering individual landing pages. The tablet had only a few large buttons, each of which would take users to a starting page sponsored by the content companies.
“We didn’t have the concept of apps, but that was as close as we could get. We had a dedicated browser, and that first turn-on led to a dedicated home page and we made it a content play,” Cobbley said.
The similarities to today’s iPad and other tablets went beyond content consumption as a key usage model. You could also use touch or a stylus to navigate. It had a soft translucent keyboard design that Intel patented.It played music and videos, and served as a digital picture frame before digital picture frames went mainstream.
“It was ahead of its time,” Cobbley said. “We had a lot of debates about the user experience and put a lot of emphasis there.”
The software package included Wind River’s WindStorm (from the company Intel would acquire several years later), the VxWorks real-time operating system, an embedded browser and software for rich audio. It also used Intel’s low-power Strataflash memory for code and data storage.
When it was time to preview the device in January 2001, then-Intel CEO Craig Barrett took center stage at CES and described a vision of an “extended PC era,” where devices like the Intel Tablet would allow consumers to take their Internet experience beyond the PC.
“As digital consumer devices evolve, they will migrate toward more of the PC’s capabilities and blend into the PC environment,” Barrett said. “Consumers will be at the center of their own Internet experiences.”
At the time, market research company IDC predicted that Web tablets would account for only about 1 million of the 89 million so-called Internet appliances that were expected to ship in 2004.
“We were the big stars of CES in 2001,” Andersen recalled. “We were outselling with mock-ups even before we had the device and the response was good. It was all about the Internet and the tech boom was crazy. It was a good time to be selling.”
By September 2001 everything would change, again. It turned out that Intel’s foray into branded devices was causing tension with Intel customers, according to Andersen. It may or may not have been the tablet itself, but there had been a lot of publicity about Intel’s consumer products push that year, and OEMs were apparently not pleased.
There were other issues. The software had been late, which meant they were late to launch, and the cost was going to be over $500 once they reached the market. Cobbley said they knew the initial version would be more of a concept and they were already working on a more robust second-generation product.
Perhaps it was an idea whose time had not yet come. Or perhaps it was Intel’s well known impatience for any business that couldn’t project sales of a billion dollars or more in a short time. But they were boxed and ready in the fall of 2001 when the axe came down.
“We were at the beach celebrating, the trucks were rolling,” Andersen said, when the call came to shut it all down.Circuit City was signed up to sell them, there was even an ad that ran in the New York Times, but not a single one of the tablets ever made it to stores.”
So how did they feel years later when the iPad was launched and tablets became the hot new thing?
“What made it so interesting to me was to realize how cutting edge we were from a usability perspective,” Arrington said. “It was gratifying to say we were right.”
Cobbley said what’s disappointing is that Intel had just started to figure out not only the design and the usage model, but the ecosystem for an entirely new business. He said the decision to shut down the tablet group and the entire consumer products division led to lost opportunity. He wonders what could have been — if Intel had stuck it out.
“We actually had started to figure it out, the retailers, channels, relationships, OEMs,” Cobbley said. “We also lost a major cadre of very talented software people who were associated with these projects. Some say Intel’s seventh value is impatience. We should have come back or kept some of it going.”