It was billed as the "portable web browsing device that could enable mass adoption of Internet access." So okay, they got that part wrong. In any case, the NatSemi WebPAD offered a tantalizing hint of things to come.
It was, first of all, a hand-holdable tablet, albeit a bulky one by today's standards. And sure enough, it let you surf wirelessly via a 2.4 GHz base station. But despite these capabilities, it was doomed to fail — not because it was deficient, but because it was ahead of its time.
You see, the WebPAD made its debut in 1998, long before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube came on the scene. There was no social media, no Web 2.0, no eBay, no Wi-Fi hotspots, and few broadband connections. By today's standards, the web could be defined by what it lacked. So while something like a wireless tablet was extremely cool, it wasn't compelling as a consumer product. There was only so much you could do with it.
Fast-forward to 2011. The challenge of building a tablet has changed radically. In 1998, NatSemi built a tablet and hoped the web would catch up. Now, the web is rich beyond measure and needs an extremely powerful tablet to take full advantage of it. If you've seen videos of the BlackBerry PlayBook's web fidelity, wicked-fast multitasking, or HD video, you know what I'm talking about.
More to the point, the web really has caught up. As a result, the tablet concept, which was simply cool in 1998, has become simply huge in 2011. So, hats off to the folks who pioneered the concept so many years ago. And kudos to my many colleagues at QNX and RIM who are transforming that concept into a thing of beauty. Consider me blown away.