Ars Technica has this great article on how “Star Trek: The Next Generation” invented (or at least imagined) the precursors to today’s tablets. To begin with, props for the futuristic technology featured in the show were driven in large part by the limited budget that the crew had to work with. Series art director Michael Okuda describes how that factor led them to imagine touchscreen interfaces:
‘The initial motivation for that was in fact cost,’ Okuda explained. ‘Doing it purely as a graphic was considerably less expensive than buying electronic components. But very quickly we began to realize—as we figured out how these things would work and how someone would operate them, people would come to me and say, ‘What happens if I need to do this?’ Perhaps it was some action I hadn’t thought of, and we didn’t have a specific control for that. And I realized the proper answer to that was, ‘It’s in the software.’ All the things we needed could be software-definable.’
The thinking for those interfaces was extrapolated out to clipboard devices, a common prop from the original series from the 1960s that they wanted to update in a sufficiently advanced way for the new show. These were basically
For ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and beyond, Starfleet used touchscreen PADDs. The thin, handheld devices used the same interface as the control panels and computers on the Enterprise-D. ‘The idea was that we wanted to make them sleeker, slimmer, and way more advanced than the electronic clipboards were on the original series,’ Okuda said.
But PADDs were much more powerful than electronic note pads. ‘We realized that with the networking capabilities we had postulated for the ship, and given the [hypothetical] flexibility of the software, you should be able to fly the ship from the PADD,’ Okuda said.