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Found at Goodwill: WebPad 1001 Prototype (huebnerob.com)
321 points by farmerbb 7 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 81 comments





For those that read this article, I highly recommend you watch the 1998 COMDEX video it references. [1]

It's both sad and amazing that much of what we use today was "coming soon" 23 years ago.

[1] https://archive.org/details/CC1634COMDEX


In '98-'99 I was working on this one:

https://metalab.at/wiki/Freepad

While it's sad, one of my biggest lessons from it was that the greatest genius with the iPhone and iPad was understanding the market.

Showing our tablet to techies worked great. People were excited about the hardware, about the fact it ran Linux, about it running Opera, and in general geeked out over it.

But it was tethered to your house - few places had more than 9600 bps GSM data, so it used a DECT extension (wifi was not well established) to provide an internet connection tied to your house.

And it had a crappy resistive touch screen. Low resolution. Too slow CPU. Too little RAM. Too little flash.

Imagine a slow, heavy tablet with low resolution and janky touch that you could take no further than your garden (if you were lucky).

So what we use today superficially looks like more modern versions (that bezel size...) of things on offer back then. But really a lot of the time while they worked well as prototypes, we just didn't have the sense (or opportunity) to say "the time isn't right for this product yet, let's pick it up again when x,y,z has happened."


> greatest genius [...] was understanding the market.

So many people doing product development work of one sort or another fail to understand this to their detriment.

You have to screw up the engineering for it to kill a product; a mediocre implementation is often times just fine, especially if you are early.

But if you are building the wrong thing, no amount of implementation talent can save you.


I remember the guys from ViA Inc (not the same Via as the processors) with their tablets tethered to their wearable belt computer. They'd carry the tablet in a thigh holster.

For me what catapulted the iPhone over its competitors (Palm, BB and WinCE phones) was it was phone + music player + GPS and you had an app store in a sleek package (no stubby antenna or big bezels)

From this I think the issue is vertical integration to produce a seamless product. In this sense, at the time, maybe Microsoft had some ideas but abandoned them before they were ready (Courier).


Yeah, but a lot of people wanted to make their devices like that [smaller bezels, hiding the antenna - which we did with the FreePad, but we couldn't hide the huge battery, etc.]

It's just that during the first generation of smartphones and tablets the hardware simply was not there. The wide bezels you see in my link above, for example, were strictly dictated by what was possible to make work with the hardware specs, which were already too limited, but the best we could do at a reasonable price while staying small enough.

The big bulky thing at the back was making the best possible out of the battery space by turning it into a stand of sorts. The FreePad industrial design was actually quite amazing given the constraints, but the constraints were too severe to make a viable product possible.

And instead of waiting for it to be possible, we all compromised the hardware without realising that turned it into something most customers didn't want.

And so most companies that tried abandoned that market and took the wrong lesson from it that customers had rejected the whole product category rather than just the ugly, underpowered hardware that was possible at the time.

Apple's success in this space came in understanding that customers had rejected the design, not the product category.

Ironically, Apple's app store happened first after they had to concede web based "apps" had exactly that problem: The technology was not there yet, and insisting on only web apps did not give people the experience they wanted. But that was a problem that could be solved without waiting for hardware to catch up.


The App Store wasn’t a thing at first though. That was about a year after the release.

There were only 9 years between the 1998 Comdex and the iPhone release in 2007. Of the 23 years we have had iPhones for 14 years... Time perception is sometimes strange.

The 10 year span between 2000 and 2010 also had one of the largest relative uplifts in transistor density. Going from 130nm to 28nm was HUGE.

I think people forget how quickly computers (especially in efficiency!) improved from just 2000-2005 and again from 2005-2010.

Everything has leveled out a bit until recently. I think we'll see another 5 year growth spurt once stacked designs become common end of 2022ish. Though TSV vs EMIB is a whole other argument/ball of wax.


The 1990s felt similarly insane. In 1991 we we had Hovertank 3D, in 1993 we had Doom, in 1998 we had Half-Life, and in 2000 we had Deus Ex.

Go back nine years today and things don't feel that different from now. People still buy Skyrim.


AR is probably in its "hovertank" era right now, after years of interesting but largely useless demos.

Someday we're going to wonder how anyone managed to navigate or buy things in shops without realtime vision markup.


I just want a little note that reminds me of a person's name and how I know them.

That probably has more to do with the human bottleneck in games, than anything else.

Big open world is good, if you can manage to fill the big open world with stuff. But procedural generation is annoying and repetitive, but at the same time handcrafting a world is time and labor intensive. See: Cyberpunk 2077


> Everything has leveled out a bit until recently.

You can say that again. I'm typing this on a desktop PC powered by a Xeon that is approaching 10 years old and I don't have any complaints. The cost of upgrading it over the years has been modest.

In comparison I have a Nexus 5 that is about the same age and getting modern Android on it is a pain, the processor really struggles and the physical device itself has seen much better days.


Anecdote: I'm typing this on a 2013 Xeon (Haswell E3v3), and it's acceptable for web/productivity, but the x265 encode performance is absolutely abysmal compared to newer CPUs, especially AMD's. GPU encoding is good for ephemeral streams, but good archival encoding is all CPU-bound: https://forum.doom9.org/showthread.php?p=1908148#post1908148

"""Luckily""" for me I do mostly standard-definition encodes and can get a sustained ~11FPS with my own ICC-built x265 binaries and my own custom "SD" encoder tuning. Every time I encode an HD video I wonder why I haven't replaced this system yet. Then I look at component prices and remember why.


The big jump has been in storage. HDD to SSD is 4-10x and from SSD to NVMe is 4-10x again.

Yes, I was going to say -- the increase in IOPS is off the charts. I worked at an ad-tech startup in 2010 and that was the biggest bottleneck for what we were trying to do. At that point SSDs were a thing on the desktop, but not really in the datacenter still. Too pricey.

Kids today with their insanely high IOPS! They don't know the pain!


I remember upgrading my CPU and GPU every year because of the exciting new technology being released almost constantly.

> 28nm was HUGE

... so to speak.


It's funny how much Apple dominates our memory.

It was only a couple years between the 1998 Comdex and when I got my first wifi PalmOS device with a color screen. At some point my handheld devices acquired the ability to connect directly to a cellular network, which was nice, and then became really nice with the iPhone. But I don't think that was ever a planned feature for the WebPad in the first place.

The form factor is perhaps more interesting. We did have to wait 12 years until Apple legitimized the idea of a device along these lines that doesn't fit in a pocket.


The Palm devices were great, I had one of the originals, then Samsung had a flip-phone version, and Treos followed after. I used the heck out of all of them, and even wrote some code for the platform. It was really sad that they lost their way.

"Form factor" can be a slippery notion. The genius of the iPad design, I think, is that it _couldn't_ be mistaken for an educational device. It actually looked like it belonged in a leather folio next to some important papers, not in your kids' school bag.


Isn't that the truth. I recently came across a meme that I suspect will drive this point home for many in this community. https://www.reddit.com/r/zelda/comments/mj9mim/loz_ww_decide...

The one that gets me is that ENIAC was (mostly) live in 1946 and the IBM PC first shipped in 1981.

The upshot of this is that there's more time between now and the IBM PC than there is between the IBM PC and ENIAC. (18K vacuum tunes, filled a room, and and was programmed via physical rewiring, at least initlally.)

> Time perception is sometimes strange.

Agreed.


I fired up one of my old laptops from 1995 or so. It was a cutting edge machine at the time, very nice. It seemed completely unusable today. The tiny disk drive, for instance.

For me it's the displays. Old laptops had terrible TN panels and are painful to look at today. It makes them near useless even for basic web browsing.

From my perspective, screen technology was still being developed. As shown in that archive.org video, CRTs were still dominant at that time because they were much cheaper than large full color LCDs. Those who could afford a large color LCD generally preferred a laptop. Only after the price of color LCDs came down did it make sense for people to buy tablets. Precision multi-touch sensitivity also turned out to be a turning point in adoption.

I imagine software was a big deal too. It's important not to forget the magnitude of the advantage that iTunes delivered for Apple. I think there's a sound argument to be made that, without iTunes, that iOS devices would have never achieved the same success.

iTunes provided a platform to get a critical mass of users accustom to buying $0.89-$20 digital downloads. Which made the transition of iTunes into an "app store" a minor one for users. They are there to buy music, but maybe in the future, they might find some apps for their iPhone useful.

Once Apple had a critical mass of developers building non-trivial apps for the iPhone. It was a (kind of) baby step to supporting tablets.

Lots of people tried to invent the tablet. I think they failed because of a lack of software, rather than poor hardware.


As someone who "tried to invent the tablet" (we were not first, and we'd all seen Star Trek and the like; nobody at the time thought we were inventing anything new), it was very much the hardware.

It's possible software would have stopped wide adoption, but software was a solvable problem - porting Linux apps to our platform was comparatively easy, for example, and we could run Flash, so we could show fairly fancy demos.

But it never got far enough for most of these platforms for software to become a problem, other than for Palm who had apps, but stumbled in all kinds of other ways, not least in never shaking the image as a serious PDA, which instantly made it a niche product.

The devices were hampered by all kinds of hardware limitations. Screens were awful. The touch panels were awful. Even really expensive devices felt like toys because of it. CPUs were awfully slow. Lack of wifi was a big issue with the first generation tablets and solved in all kinds of awful ways. Flash was ludicrously expensive - we agonised over 16MB vs. 32MB storage. We used NanoX [1] rather than X11 for our windowing system because the engineering cost of adapting NanoX and writing our own widgets for it was worth it to save a few MB of flash and a few MB of RAM.

And so getting distributors and retailers and the like to commit crashed and burned before you got to the point of what software you could launch it with.

[1] https://github.com/ghaerr/microwindows


>there is even a .com button, so you don't have to type it out. 1998? Magnificent.


Interesting how the device in the video looks slightly different from the prototype. I love how the 3 LEDs in the top-right animate like the front of the car in Knight Rider.

Brings back memories to see Stewart Cheifet giving an interview!


It seems web pages loaded at least as quickly in 1998 as in 2021

I was about to say it looked like they loaded much faster. I can't believe the bloat some websites have now.

"Dictate. Where is the toilet, question mark. Where is the toilet, question mark. Let try that again. Where is the toilet, question mark"

It's amazing that the webpad was due to launch the same year that The Matrix was in theatres.


Taking that into consideration, and the many ideas that failed but are now succeeding, I wonder what businesses of today will fail yet be fully implemented in 20 years?

Websites loaded so fast back then!

It's really just a laptop without a keyboard, not really that groundbreaking. The inflation calculator puts the advertised price at almost $1000 today. So, probably the only reason it was "coming soon" was there wasn't much of a market. It's a bit disingenuous to pretend that "what we use today" is the same thing. Today you can get the same functionality for about $100, only with modern specs. Something of equivalent specs could likely be gotten for free in a landfill.

It might be incorrect, but it isn’t disingenuous. No one is trying to lie or hide or be insincere.

I always find these orphaned technological branches compelling, in part, because it's so easy to point to the success story and treat it like it was a singular invention. We hold up the iPhone as a miracle but forget the Newton and PalmPilot.

It's a good antidote to the narrative that either an idea is sufficient for success, or that success is a function of the idea. It's important, sure, but a fair bit of it is having the timing, resources, and luck to throw ideas against the wall until the world is ready for it, either due to cultural factors, missing infrastructure now built out, or other underlying technological evolutions meeting up together.


I'd even go so far as to say the idea is the easy part. Tablet computers are an old idea, they had them on Star Trek TNG. Engineers have been trying to make the PADD a reality pretty much since the first episode. iPad wasn't the first attempt, it was the last.

It wasn't even Apple's first. And unlike the ones that came before it actually did reasonably well at matching the depiction. It got the relative size, weight and pick up and just use experience.

But nobody at Apple would have known the tech was ready if people hadn't been trying over and over to do it for the previous 20 years.

New tech is almost never an original invention that came from nowhere. The internet was built on decades of research specifically into networking computers together but also built on almost a century's worth of development into the phone network. The experiments that lead to radar date to not long after radio became practical. The Wright bro's weren't the first to try an airplane, they were the first to make it work. and so on.

Its the implementation that matters.


They've been trying to make them since 1972:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynabook


Not just the Newton and palmpilot but the the PocketPC phones that came immediately before it.

When the iPhone came out i had an HTC TyTN 2 which unlike the iPhone could do turn by turn navigation, send SMS/MMS to multiple recipients, and act as a 3g modem for my computer while i was traveling. I also adored the pull out keyboard, which until the advent of swype was by far the fastest input method for a mobile device.


And Blackberry 7200s.

RIM proved that there was demand for smartphones long before the iPhone hit the market.


I had a remaindered tytn 2 as well. Even with a walk through configuring the mobile internet was a bizzare tricky maze. On an iPhone you just inserted a SIM, put in the APN and everything worked? I can see why the iPhone won.

Not to mention the irony that Microsoft quickly abandoned its own platform so the only people keeping it a useable device were Opera, Gmail and Google maps. The Microsoft browser couldn't even cope with the Microsoft website.


The HD2 from around that era was also a stand out. I still remember seeing one for the first time and just being floored by the 4.3" form factor.

Despite the hyperbole in the article characterizing it as the first iPad, this thing is literally a low-budget x86 laptop without a keyboard. I wouldn't exactly call it an orphaned technological branch.

Not the first time such prototypes have shown up in thrift stores. Notably this has happened with both Texas Instruments [1] and Xbox [2] prototypes before.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/androiddev/comments/jrbnnh/i_found_... [2] https://www.reddit.com/r/gamecollecting/comments/t0d98/proto...


Every time this happens I'm curious how it ended up there. Someone just bringing a box of junk to goodwill and actually not caring, or is someone having an "oh shit" moment when they read this because they didn't actually check the box that thoroughly? The sadder story, and the older the tech the more likely, is that the person who owned it isn't with us anymore, and this is just someone cleaning up their house.

For reasons, I abandoned a storage unit containing (among other things) numerous prototype and unreleased hardware devices, the storage company will just have auctioned the contents. Sooner or later one will appear on here I'm sure

A lot of these prototypes aren't that closely guarded. As a run-of-the-mill employee at Google I ended up with a bunch of random pre-production Androids and IOT devices from the dogfood program. You were supposed to give them back most people I know didn't bother -- Google isn't a very threatening employer -- and I think I even accidentally gave some of them away with other old electronics when I moved.

There was also a room full of to-be-recycled electronics in 42. It was open to employees so they could recycle personal stuff but it was absolutely full of (I assume non-confidential) prototypes including stuff that looked like it was from Google X. I was too scared to take any of this stuff but was really tempted to grab the carbon fiber gliders and weird nest devices.


Maybe they know it's a prototype and purposefully "accidentally sell it" just to see who ends up buying it. Especially if it's a prototype for an old tech product, the company that made it either doesn't exist anymore, or the device is so old they just don't care.

If I had to guess that Xbox was a take home unit for testing Xbox Live. The production date was about a year after retail release, and a home unit for testing an early version of live is the kind of thing that could end up in an ex's garage and goodwilled.

I live in Bay Area and like visiting Goodwill.

Although I haven't seen anything as cool as the one in this article, sometimes there are coffee mugs or T-shirts of failed startups and large companies that are gone long time ago, or lovely T-shirts that used to be sold in Cupertino Apple store.


Goodwill in the PNW is great too with lots of Microsoft “not for sale” items.

I was able to get a MS t-shirt with the Windows Defender logo on the front with "XP SP2" below it and "SECURITY" on the back.

It's absurd and I love it


Puget Sound or Seattle-Tacoma is probably more accurate, as Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC are also part of the PNW.

Not as much prototype stuff (at least not yet for me) but good stuff in Portland, too. I’m looking forward to getting back post-COVID.

Early last year they had a handful of what appeared to be pre-production Microsoft wireless display adapters at the Baseline location. None of the info printed on it matched retail units as far as I could tell.

Prices have been crazy since they've re-opened. They have a bunch of Apple devices in right now, some company dropped off a ton.


PNW?

Pacific Northwest, in the Northwestern US. Where Microsoft/Amazon/others are based...https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Northwest

Pistachio Nut Waffles



The Pacific NorthWet. Er, West. Seattle, etc.

"Pacific NorthWest". Basically, near Microsoft's main Redmond campus.

Pacific northwest (USA)

I miss Mike Quinn and Weird Stuff. I haunted them in my youth and made all kinds of crazy projects.

Wow, forgot all about Cyrix (and Nexgen): Circa 1996 they were a legit threat to Intel, in fact, that's part of the reason why Celeron was born.

What a find!


And IDT/Centaur’s WinChip, (later acquired by VIA, which then shipped the C3, Nano, etc,).

There is a good documentary on the Centaur, unfortunately no comments when it came up in HN 3 years ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17471685.


I was at National Semiconductor at the time. National used to own quite a bit of the non-processor silicon on computers of the time. When National bought Cyrix, Intel made sure National lost all those sockets.

In a similar vein A Rudimentary Analysis of 1992 HP Omnishare https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27426134

Windows 3 pen computing tablet for sharing documents over a phone line.


@gibberish - I've got a working PCMCIA Wi-Fi adapter in my junk bin if you're interested.

Here's hoping the kernel supports it.

Linux wifi was extra iffy back then iirc. Might need a proprietary blob.


An Orinoco card should be a safe bet (I've got a bunch stashed in the closet, if OP needed one...) but you'll also want to set up a separate wifi network so you can run 802.11b without exposing your whole home.

Cisco cards also worked pretty well back then too.

It's a D-Link and has only been used with a Linux laptop.

Sometimes it is a bad implementation that scares engineers from a pioneering piece of technology. The windows 3.1 and 95 machines with pen computing for windows were quite impressive and had a long career in the medical field.

Seems like an LGR oddware candidate, along with other eyeopener devices like this.

Awesome find!

Goodwill helps people, keeps stuff out of landfills, and provides a fascinating trove of treasure with every visit. Kudos to the author.


That Comdex video was from 1998 but Cyrix went out of business on November 11, 1997. I wonder what was going on in that video if that was the case...

Boot 'er up and log into AOL.



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