Daniel Eran Dilger
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Anticipating the Apple Tablet

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Daniel Eran Dilger

Everyone is taking turns speculating about The Tablet that Apple is expected to debut about three weeks from now. It’s my turn.
There’s a lot of consensus about Apple’s upcoming Tablet, apparently because nobody wants to say anything provocative or risky. It is almost unanimous that it will physically be a large, 10“ version of the iPod touch. Everyone is expecting a color display with perhaps HDTV resolution and the same type of multitouch screen as the iPhone, supporting an expanded user interface incorporating some sort of 3D elements.

Nearly everyone sees this product as being targeted to consumers as a way to browse the web (with HTML5 savvy), play iTunes content (and particularly that new iTunes LP and Extras stuff) and view rich multimedia magazines and newspaper content along electronic editions of traditional books.

Other manufacturers are all scrambling to get out their own tablets in advance of what Apple is bringing to market, apparently trying to capture the same level of success associated with PlaysForSure players, the Zune, the LG Prada, and the Palm Pre, each of which beat Apple to certain features by a matter of months.

iPod vs Zune: A Buyer’s Guide
Apple iPhone vs LG Prada KE850
Palm Pre: The Emperor’s New Phone

Tablets of failure in the 2000s.

It was almost ten years ago that Bill Gates demonstrated his vision of Tablet PCs at Comdex 2001, lining up more hardware partners than today’s Android currently enjoys in order to show off a variety of laptops stripped of their keyboards and instead piloted by a stylus.

Bill Gates’ revolutionary Tablet PC was a big Newton Message Pad, ten years late and running Windows XP. But that wasn’t enough to make Microsoft successful in introducing Tablet PCs to mainstream consumers or even business users, for some of the same reasons Apple’s foray into creating the ”Personal Digital Assistant“ flopped. Microsoft’s Tablet PC was too expensive to compete with conventional laptops, too big to be much more mobile than a conventional laptop, and too slow to be useful in place of a conventional laptop.

Microsoft also ensured that the software wasn’t really ready for prime time, nor really capable of doing much you couldn’t already do with a conventional laptop. It also didn’t help that a recession was beginning, sapping any interest in frivolous gadgets in general.

fear and loathing in vegas

CES 2008: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Newton Lessons for Apple’s New Platform

Apple shuns the tablet hype to focus on existing markets.

In 2001, Apple ignored Microsoft’s Tablet PC initiative to instead concentrate on investing in the conventional laptop and the software that would run it. Over the next decade, Apple’s success with the Mac platform came largely through sales of its notebooks, enhanced by novel and practical features rolled into Mac OS X, iLife, Pro Apps and other Apple software.

There’s no need for extensive research into which vision of the future worked out best. Apple’s MacBook line has turned into the main driver of its Mac sales, and the company has morphed from a niche maker of boutique, specialized PCs into a retail giant that captures the lion’s share of all premium-priced computers, and therefore also the most attractive segment of PC sales in terms of profits. More than half of those sales are notebooks.

In contrast, Microsoft’s Tablet PC idea never gained much traction. Instead, the company has scrambled to match the features Apple delivered in Mac OS X and tried to whip up suitable equivalents to iLife apps to get consumers to keep buying generic PCs running Windows. But Windows was so bad at supporting laptop features such as sleep/wake power management that Microsoft entertained silly ideas like SideShow, which added an external, expensive mobile device to the top of laptops to avoid needing to power them on.

Additionally, Microsoft had little control over what its hardware partners were doing, so it could only watch as Apple’s MacBooks got more sophisticated and refined while its own partners churned out increasingly cheaper and lower quality laptops aimed at cheapskates. These cheap laptops did nothing to suggest any future for Gates’ Tablet PC fantasy.

Beyond Microsoft, we’ve seen a variety of other attempts at handheld systems that range from stripped down mini-laptops to big PDAs. The most successful and hyped segment of the PC computing market these days has been netbooks, which are just cheap and small laptops. Their relative popularity says more about the lack of innovation among PC makers than anything else. Once you run out of ideas completely all you can do is try to sell the same stuff at a lower price. Just ask China.

Also in the works is Google’s Chrome OS, which replaces Windows on low end netbooks and tablets with a closed Linux distribution only capable of running a web browser on steroids. This isn’t entirely new, and won’t be available until the end of the year. When it does arrive, it will be competing for attention with Android-powered netbooks and small tablet-form factor devices that resemble the iPod touch, including Apple’s.

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2010: The Year We Make Tablets?

Given the history of last decade, why would Apple be floating a tablet now? Well for starters, Apple’s conventional notebooks are now significantly more expensive than bargain-bin PC laptops. This is probably not something that can be sustained indefinitely. Apple also has harvested all the low hanging fruit in MP3 players, smartphones, and personal web browser devices. Apple has also stoked a tremendous fire inside its iTunes App Store.

The circumstances are right for Apple to provide an alternative to the conventional laptop computer, not following Microsoft’s vision, but rather its own. In 2001, Microsoft’s strengths were in its Office suite and Windows platform. It imagined that creating a Tablet PC reference design would bud the PC world into a new branch of specialized devices that would provide new reasons for people to buy Office and run its apps from the 80s enhanced with the stylus of Pen Computing that had repeatedly failed in the 90s.

Today, Apple’s core competencies related to mobility are in designing attractive hardware, integrating music and video content, managing a third party application store, and developing simple, intuitive user interfaces. This aptitude took a decade to pull together, starting with the iPod line, the iPhone, and the iPod touch.

But Apple also still makes conventional Macs, primarily iMacs and MacBooks, and creates lots of conventional desktop software from iLife to Pro Apps. Still, there is no reason to think that a tablet Mac would be popular or useful, and conversely, there’s a reason to think that it wouldn’t: the ModBook, a third party attempt to fashion a Microsoft-style Tablet PC from a MacBook. While that product functions, it doesn’t do anything anyone really needs or wants, just like Microsoft’s own Tablet PC offerings.

Two Decades of Portable Macs: 1989 – 2009

What would make a Tablet useful?

Rather than making a tablet form of a Mac, Apple is much more likely to scale the iPod touch up, adding new applications and capabilities. Instead of being a way to work on Office documents with a stylus, the Apple Tablet appears to be targeted as a way to navigate information and Internet-enabled apps, much like the iPod touch.

Just months after launching the iPhone, Apple attempted to scale it down as an iPod, lopping off features like Bluetooth (and the phone, obviously) and scaling back the bundled software. Users were annoyed that Apple had attempted to use artificial boundaries to differentiate the two, and the company finally relented by adding all the core iPhone OS apps to the iPod touch. It also eventually brought the iPod touch hardware up to par with the iPhone.

Last year, Apple released a new cheaper iPod touch that signaled that the company had worked past its fears that the iPod touch would compete against the iPhone. The company realized that widespread availability of the iPod touch would expand the market for the App Store, which itself would benefit the iPhone and software sales in general. Part of the reason why Apple remains untouchable by Android is because Apple has one iPhone model and the iPod touch backing it up in the App Store. Third party developers get bites from two different fish on every baited hook they cast.

To be successful, Apple’s Tablet will need to fit into the existing product line and strengthen it without killing what’s already there, just as the iPod touch was able to do. Apple has previously demonstrated the willingness to boldly challenge its existing product offerings by replacing them with something entirely new (such as the iPod nano replacing the iPod mini). With the Tablet however, Apple has nothing to replace outright. It’s not going to dump its MacBook line nor the iPod touch. This isn’t an upgrade of an existing product, it’s an extension into a new market.

Same same, but different.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of room for complementary products between those two. To avoid competing with its conventional notebooks, the Tablet needs to differentiate itself from being a full-fledged PC. Like the iPod touch and iPhone, it will be a browser of information, not an editor. It won’t run page layout apps or edit full videos or create music. Unlike the iPhone and iPod touch however, it will offer a much larger screen, making it more suitable for interacting with textbooks and magazines and newspaper layouts, as well as iTunes LPs and Extras.

While the small screens on the iPhone and iPod touch are very usable for browsing the web and casual reading, they don’t support any playback of inline video because it doesn’t make sense to view an embedded video within a webpage on a 3.5” screen, regardless of whatever the Flash-bound hoot about in their Adobe-insanity. Instead, when you select a video the iPhone opens in its own QuickTime player app, similar to how PDFs or other documents are viewed. The Tablet’s much larger display certainly could render video inline, creating a very different and much more interactive overall feel.

This indicates that the Tablet will indeed be a scaled up iPhone OS device, with seamless backward compatibility with its smaller siblings. There is no need for the Tablet to run conventional desktop apps, and allowing this as a possibility would require bringing Carbon and Java APIs ahead into the next generation of the mobile Mac. No, it’s much more likely that the Tablet will be running Cocoa Touch apps only, and similarly run them in a sandboxes environment and distribute them though the App Store exclusively. These are all reasons why this won’t be a standard Mac.

As with any 1.0 product, Apple needs to restrict its feature set so that it does a few marketable things really well, while avoiding any critique of the other things that aren’t yet ready. The original iPhone didn’t attempt to do copy and paste or undo. Of course, the Tablet will because it isn’t running 1.0 software, but rather iPhone 4.0 software. Investment into new Tablet features (such as interface enhancements) will very likely trickle back into the iPhone and iPod touch, just as the investment into the iPhone found its way to the iPod line.

There will also be elements of the Tablet and iPhone 4.0 that make their way into Mac OS X 10.7, which is expected to debut at WWDC this summer. Enhancements to Quicktime X are an obvious one, following the pattern of moving the iPhone’s modernized subset of QuickTime into Snow Leopard.

Inside Mac OS X Snow Leopard: QuickTime X

What would make a Tablet new?

At the same time, the Tablet is likely to benefit from some desktop Mac OS X features that the iPhone and iPod touch haven’t begged for due to their size. Consider the ability to wirelessly print to local printers. That’s a handy (but not required feature) on a smartphone, but a lot more useful and necessary if you’re working on a slate-sized machine. Once perfected for the Tablet, this will likely find its way to the iPhone and iPod touch in iPhone 4.0.

Another example of a likely desktop feature to appear on the Tablet is the ability to browse local websites via Bonjour, browse local iTunes shares (and participate in iTunes’ new Home Sharing feature), local iPhoto libraries, and so on. It would also make sense for the Tablet to share its own files and photos and other content for easy file transfer with other Tablet and desktop Mac/PC users, something that Apple avoided adding to the existing iPhone 3.0 firmware, likely for battery life considerations.

Additional horsepower, screen size and battery will also lift other limits currently imposed on the iPhone. I’m imagining it will debut Apple’s strategy for allowing certain third party apps to run in the background, something that is likely to eventually make it to new iPhones with increased horsepower as well.

A more sophisticated Calendar and Contacts app would enable Apple to push into the Enterprise both as a novel tablet-format client and as a server vendor, once it can manage to sort out how to offer fully functional corporate calendaring and directory services with push messaging. And what better client would there be for remotely managing servers than a Tablet?

With VNC screen sharing (the same technology behind iChat and Apple Remote Desktop), the Tablet would serve as an anywhere, anything PC on top of what it already does, with little to no effort from Apple. VNC was invented to support tablet devices on a fast network, and now we have the formerly missing technology to support both tablets and fast networks.

A remaining question mark hangs over how users will enter text. Will it be entirely though a virtual on-screen keyboard like the iPhone? Will it work with Bluetooth keyboards, another feature that should soon make it to the iPhone as well? Will it incorporate some flashy new technology such as voice recognition, which still barely works on a full power desktop? Will Apple relent and use a Newton-style stylus, which users have scorned for two decades now? I’ll have to wait and see about that.

A Brief History of Remote Display (VNC)

What would make a Tablet affordable?

Apple’s key feature of the iPhone was to bury its true hardware cost using carrier rebates and then subsidies. While it’s possible the Tablet could similarly be tied to a WWLAN contract that also subsidizes its price, it’s unlikely that a large number of consumers who have already signed up to use the iPhone for around $80 a month would jump at the prospect of paying their carrier double that to use an iPhone and a new Tablet, even if it made obtaining the Tablet cheaper from the beginning.

Instead, it’s possible that AT&T and other iPhone carriers might partially subsidize the Tablet with a cheaper data-only contract tied to the same account, so you’d be paying about $40 more to use it. It’s also possible that the Tablet could be sold as a device intended to be used with a tethered smartphone, meaning that you’d have to sign up for a tethering plan that doesn’t offer any hardware subsidy, but also doesn’t require a dedicated monthly service plan just to use the Tablet.

Since the Tablet isn’t as mobile as an iPhone or iPod touch in terms of size, it also makes sense that it could be WiFi only, with the expectation that you’d use it somewhere where WiFi was available, much like Apple’s lineup of MacBooks. Sold as a MacBook companion and/or alternative, the Tablet could become popular at a price of around $800-$1000, although the current recession is going to limit such a device to the well heeled and those of us who can’t say no to crazy new futuristic gadgets.

Recall that was the price range of the 90s Newtons, although inflation has made those figures more affordable than they once were; a $1000 price tag in 1994 dollars would look equivalent to about $1450 today, and a $1000 device today would feel similar to a $700 gadget back then. Today’s Tablet at any price will be cheaper and more accessible than the Newton, but will also have more competition for attention.

Making the Tablet cheap.

There’s also a third alternative to the iPhone’s service subsidy and iPod touch/MacBook direct payment: an Apple subsidy. Recall that Apple has two storefronts selling media that this device is pretty much guaranteed to consume: iTunes music and movies and App Store mobile software. There’s also a third segment the company is known to be working on: a cable alternative of episodic TV subscriptions. The idea is that you pay Apple $30 per month to allow you to download TV from participating networks.

If Apple can pull this off, you can add iTunes TV to the list of features the Tablet will perform, and it may therefore make sense for the company to shave some money off the price of the Tablet hardware in order to ensure that it will have a guaranteed number of subscribers. Plenty of people would sign up for a year long cable contract that enabled them to watch episodic TV from anywhere they could find WiFi, with no commercials and no futzing with a VCR or DVR like Tivo, which requires jumping through some hoops to get the programming onto a mobile player.

Like the iPhone, the Tablet is also likely to expand the audience of MobileMe, although at $99 per year, Apple is unlikely to earn enough from new subscriptions to offer any real subsidy. However, adding slick web-enabled online apps to its Tablet would clearly increase its potential too. Even better would be native apps for browsing MobileMe galleries, something that Apple has somehow failed to offer on the iPhone.

A tangled web of products.

A Tablet tethered to the iPhone could potentially borrow its GPS and compass information, serve as a data uplink, a phone uplink, a video phone uplink if the Tablet has a front facing camera, and perhaps support other interactions. A Tablet with a MiniDisplayPort (or even just a USB/iPod connector) could act as an accessory touch screen monitor for a desktop system, making it a companion rather than outright Mac replacement, something that the Newton failed to do, WinCE failed to do, and the Palm Foleo failed to do.

The Tablet running Apple’s Remote app would also potentially boost the visibility of Apple TV. Just demonstrating an app that does presentations and launches content on an Apple TV enabled display would sell packages of both to lots of companies. Everything is cheaper by the dozen, which is why the price of the iPhone plummeted once Apple realized that users would indeed flock to purchase it volume.

There is also one last way Apple could make the Tablet affordable: choose to make less money on it initially in order to suck all the oxygen out of the tablet market, ensuring that it remained the key player in mobile devices and software. By selling the Tablet near cost, as it does with Apple TV, Apple could create a huge installed base and quickly bring down component costs via economies of scale. Once it sold its first five million, there would be intense pricing pressures keeping rival devices from entering the market with me-too devices.

This may seem uncharacteristic for Apple and its customary high margins, but it’s exactly what the company did with the latest iPod touch, and its what Apple executives warned they were increasingly going to do in general terms. With complementary ties to other products, services, and content, Apple has less need to make all of its cash upfront from hardware sales. Of course, Apple is still making healthy margins on its iPod, iPhone, and Mac product lines, and it has vast reserves of cash, meaning that floating a Tablet in the style of Apple TV isn’t a crazy idea.

A Product Transition: Giving MacBooks the iPhone Touch

The other tablets in the rear view mirror.

Once Apple drops its detail bomb, the market will have limited time to respond. Nobody making Android tablets has an App Store full of iTunes content, nor deals to sell digital news and periodicals, nor a push messaging and personal content hosting subscription plan, nor a TV appliance, nor a TV subscription plan in progress. Android as a platform still lacks last year’s $199 iPod touch or even a real equivalent to the iPhone.

The same can be said for Nokia’s Maemo and Symbian and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and RIMs BlackBerry and Palm’s WebOS and Samsung’s Bada. And none of these, save Microsoft, have a viable desktop PC platform with development tools that scale from the conventional desktop to smartphones to tablets-form-factor devices. Conversely, Microsoft doesn’t have a successful MP3 player, nor a successful smartphone platform, nor a desirable tablet, nor even a content and software marketplace with any significance.

That should clarify how quickly Apple’s rivals will manage to catch up to its new Tablet. Given the weak competition Apple faced against the iPod and the laughable efforts that leading mobile companies have ineffectually thrown under the wheels of the iPhone, it’s hard to imagine that Apple’s Tablet won’t similarly define the future of tablet devices while maintaining a strong lead for the foreseeable future.

Inside Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone OS as software markets

  • http://www.metrokids.ca Conrad MacIntyre

    You mentioned Apple TV and episodic subscription, is there any real evidence that this is going to happen in the foreseeable future? And if/when it does, will it be available in Canada/Globally, or just in the U.S.?

    I’d be all for ad-free video-on-demand… if they get all the big networks on-board.

  • bartfat

    I wish video-on-demand would be an option in iTunes as well, but Comcast and NBC might have something to say about that. Of course, once they see all the profits the other networks are making from iTunes, they’ll quickly change tune ;) But in the meantime, getting the networks on board is the first and hardest step. No one’s been able to get shows digitally almost instantly except Hulu, which is practically owned by the networks. So I don’t see this changing that soon. But at least Apple has shown signs of floating the idea, and that’s a start.

    As for the tablet, if it’s truly just a viewer for information, that destroys the value of it. Now, if it were editing some things like the iPhone and syncing them back to a Mac or something that would be better. But best of all would be that the feature set would be slightly more limited (due to the hardware), but it could replace a laptop for some b/c they only need to surf the web and check email on the go. Sort of like college students looking at lecture notes and maybe sharing an image or two. That sounds more reasonable… but the carriers subsidizing it? I have to doubt many people are willing to pay certain carriers for a data-only plan… It hasn’t been popular before, why should it now at the same price per month? And then there’s the thorny issue of carrier exclusivity because of the 3G modem. So I don’t think there’s a chance the Apple tablet will have a 3G modem. That lowers the cost, and Apple takes a lower margin like you said to draw in new customers and keep out the competition. And hopefully one day those customers will “upgrade” to a Macbook or Macbook Pro for full functionality (i.e. the works). I’m also going to bet that it’ll have at least one USB port so it can sync with an iPhone. After all, you might as well throw a carrot toward the iPhone owners to get them to buy a tablet ;)

    But it’s a good article overall. I do have a problem with the Modbook comment though. Plenty of graphic artists I know would love to use a Wacom tablet to draw on, but they can’t afford it. Hence why the ModBook is unpopular… because it’s expensive, not because it doesn’t fulfill a certain niche of the market. But obviously they made enough money to keep funding the company to keep modding those Macbooks, so I guess they’re popular enough to be very functional for those who use them.

    I wonder if Kevin Rose’s comment about it being “unbelievably” cheap is really true.. only time will tell, I suppose. I do hope so, though. It would be nice to add to my (admittedly sparse) collection of Macs :)

  • John E

    hmmm … well this covers a lot of possibilities, but not much beyond ongoing conventional wisdom either.

    the one kinda new idea is that Apple could subsidize the Tablet price itself via some kind of iTunes subscription plan. music, video, and newspapers for $X per month and $Y up front? but i have to disagree with one thing – wifi only is not adequate (want to keep paying $10+ per day in your hotel room?). has to have 3G data. was reading earlier tonight that Lenovo is announcing its Skylight “smartbook” for April release that will have an optional AT&T 3G data-only subsidized price plan. now, if AT&T is making that available in April for Lenovo, why not the same deal in March for the Apple Tablet? so that is my bet. Apple could then offer the iTunes subscription as an add-on (and throw in MobileMe too) leaving more cash on the table for the content owners.

    And there has to be some real sizzle. this article didn’t mention it, but HD screen resolution of some kind (the aspect ratio is tricky) is very likely. but that wouldn’t be enough. there has to be some kind of visual or UI “wow” factor.

    sure, expanded connectivity to the Apple ecosystem in every way is very good. especially somehow AppleTV (but likely not until a Fall “Take 3” new version). that would unleash the full gaming potential of the Tablet.

    finally, i hope the statement “It won’t run page layout apps or edit full videos or create music” proves totally wrong. it would be terrific to have “lite” app versions of iMovie, iPhoto, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and yes, GarageBand that would run on the more powerful Tablet. so we could edit our vacation videos and pics on the road, or do simple business stuff when out of town. or whip together music while sitting bored in airports. i have to think Apple has the chops to port its own applications to the iPhone OS!

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  • Brau

    ” Apple’s conventional notebooks are now significantly more expensive than bargain-bin PC laptops.”

    I’m glad you acknowledged that. My aging 15″ 1GHZ G4 PowerBook is up for replacement and right now I simply cannot justify another Mac. Have you seen what you can buy for $1000 less in a top-of-the-line 17″ Toshiba Qosmio? I’m delaying my upgrade decision to see what Apple does in the new year, and if they opt out of lower prices to design a pricey tablet following in the footsteps of the iPhone – well, my fate will be sealed, I’ll simply have to go with the Toshiba Laptop. $1000 buys a lot of AV software and Toshiba’s support (using Windows!) is right up there with Apple for satisfaction.

    Overall I question the hype surrounding the idea of a tablet. A tablet market has never developed for good reason. Unless you’re a stock-boy at Walmart, odds are you never *needed* a PC designed after a clipboard. If people truly needed one (beyond the desire to own a novelty), we’d have seen lots of teens and techno-geeks dragging around clunky tablets for years now (just like they did with those old suitcase sized cellphones in the 1980s), simply out of an obvious need for an item in this form. If Apple thinks consumers will pay a premium to buy one just because it’s different, they better think twice. The iPod was better than my Sony Walkman, the iPhone was better than the cellphone I already had, and my first Mac was far better than the Windows based PCs I fought daily with at work. Each time they took an existing market and simply did it better, while keeping prices within about $200 of the competition. Products that hit the market as too pricey (IE: The Cube, Lisa, etc) ultimately failed to catch on despite whatever cool factor they initially induced.

  • http://berendschotanus.com Berend Schotanus

    Interesting and long article with (as usual) some sharp edges.

    The main statement of the article, in my eyes, is that Apple is trying to do something where Microsoft failed ten years ago, which is very counterintuitive. The answer appears to be that the unannounced iSlate is not so much a new form factor for the PC but rather a reinvention of the newspaper, magazine and textbook business.

    “It’s also possible that the Tablet could be sold as a device intended to be used with a tethered smartphone…”

    What about an empty SIM tray so customers can make their own arrangements with a telco. An empty SIM tray wouldn’t misfit the MacBook Air either, saving people from the humiliation of having to attach a dongle to their sleek device while sitting in the train.

    and the sharp edges…

    “Other manufacturers are all scrambling to get out their own tablets in advance of what Apple is bringing to market, apparently trying to capture the same level of success associated with PlaysForSure players, the Zune, …”

    This is unreasonable and unfair. Your dream of a meritocracy is only achievable when everybody has an equal chance of trying. With sneering in advance you are denying a fair chance of competition and ultimately hurting your own dream.

  • http://jonnytilney.com Jon T

    The bottom line that I take from this fascinating ramble is that Apple has such amazing options and possibilities open to it today that it never had before. Anything is possible. And largely, competitors are just spectators at their own funerals.

    Which just goes to prove the difference between short term and long term thinking. Hats off to Apple for espousing that.

    Thanks Dan, and Happy New Year to you. Hope the wounds are healing.

  • Imapolicecar

    @John E { 01.05.10 at 1:58 am }
    but i have to disagree with one thing – wifi only is not adequate (want to keep paying $10+ per day in your hotel room?).

    You have to pay for internet access in your hotel room? I stayed in hotels in Switzerland, Austria and Hungary last year and it was all free! Another good reason for me not to go and live in the states again I guess :(

  • Urs W. Keller

    Personally I hope for at least one native app: MainStage, the live app of Logic Studio. Tweaking parameters with my finger without having to resort to some Midi device … sweeet !….

  • http://playground.magicrising.de Misha3d

    Great article Daniel. But I am starting to notice recently that some facts you provide are more like a personal opinion.

    […] the ModBook, a third party attempt to fashion a Microsoft-style Tablet PC from a MacBook. While that product functions, it doesn’t do anything anyone really needs or wants, just like Microsoft’s own Tablet PC offerings.

    The Modbook is on par with a Wacom Cintiq wih one big difference – it is standalone and thus portable. For a Cintiq you always need a host Computer. I know a bunch of artists and shops that employ cintiqs, but won’t buy a modbook because it “just” works standalone. If it would support both, being used as a tablet and on its own, it would most likely serve a broader market.

  • Techumenism

    Thank you for writing an article that finally addresses the broad-based questions of what practical use the tablet may have and what market it may address. I find criticism along those lines to be irritating since it presumably stems from the critic’s lack of imagination or intentional obtuseness.

    Putting aside quibbling over what I would like/expect to see in a tablet–in your article I find a lot of exciting possibilities and while a lot of the press so far hasn’t lacked in excitement, it has lacked in what exactly we should be excited about.

    One more thing to be potentially excited about is the rumored new and unusual interface (3D) which gets a plausible fleshing out here: http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/technology/2010/01/apple_tablet_3d.html

  • dallasmay

    It’ll be interesting to see what Apple does in this space. It’s really hard for me to imagine this product being successful. Remember, just because Apple makes it doesn’t guarantee commercial success, ie. AppleTV. The reason the MS Windows Tablet didn’t succeed wasn’t that it was a high priced gadget. There were lots of engineers and doctors -with plenty of money for it- salivating over the concept. The problem with the tablet is it’s form. The problem was that it was nearly impossible to enter text into while not really being any more mobile than a laptop. A tablet is roughly the same size as a laptop, far too big to carry in your pocket. That means that to carry it around, you will have to have a bag or backpack with you at all times. Second, you really can only use one hand to type with which is ridiculously tedious. MS tried to make this workable by adding handwriting recognition, but that really doesn’t work very well, never has, and probably requires a stylus. So, a tablet is as large and as expensive as a laptop and sucks at text entry, so why not just buy a laptop? The reason the iPhone was so successful was that it fixed two of those problems. You can carry it in your pocket, and it’s far cheeper than a laptop. It still sucks at text entry, but that’s okay -you have a laptop or desktop for that anyways.

    Again, it’s hard for me to imagine how apple might fix these problems. The rumors just don’t add up to me. $1000 for a 8×10 inch computer, that’s used primarily to get information from the web? Apple already sells that product, it’s called a MacBook -and it is already really great for text entry and even has multi-touch for kicks.

    I guess we’ll just have to wait a few weeks to see what SJ pulls out of his hat.

  • bchristian

    I don’t know…. still seems like too many moving parts mashed together without the seamless grace of what is expected of Apple.

  • Netudo

    When Steve Jobs announced the original iPod many years ago, he presented the 5Gb iPod like it was the most revolutionary device ever created.

    I was like “OMG, they are reviving the Newton!”
    Now it looks like they are. With style and supercharged.

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  • http://www.stat.ucla.edu/~jose HG

    The tablet’s larger adaptable touch screen makes it ideal for controlling many types of devices–for music, networks, medicine, etc.

    I see the Apple Remote application as a budding branch for this category of application.

  • http://www.transchristians.org Ephilei

    “With VLC screen sharing”
    VNC. But if they include VLC DivX and WMV codecs I’ll be shocked and amazed.

  • westech

    One (or two) more thing: A 9″ X 6″ iThingy (four times the size of an iPod Touch) would weigh slightly over one pound, and because it can accomodate four times the battery size and use little more power than an iPhone it should have a longer battery life.

  • ChuckO

    I have a bunch of concerns about a tablet.

    1a. ergonomic. Who wants to watch movies on something that sits on your lap or flat on a table or held up like a book and each of those while wearing earbuds? Sounds like fun? For 1.5 hours?

    1b. Same for reading. I’m going to prop this up next to my cornflakes in the morning to read while I have breakfast? Maybe splash a little OJ or milk on it.

    2a. Th rebirth of magazines and newspapers. These have died because the web does them better for the most part. Want to look at celebrity photos, get the latest news you jump online. Nobody needs to have these put back in the wrapper of a magazine or newspaper in order to pay for them.

    2b. Who needs iTunes extras or LP’s? If I have AppleTV I may want the extra junk that comes with a DVD to make them comparable. On any other platform it doesn’t make sense to me. The LP idea is a recreation of an old idea 2 or 3 generations don’t even have experience with.

    What does make sense to me is a netbook competitor with highly focused features that makes buying a netbook look even stupider than it already is. A $500 tablet with a great screen for surfing the web, checking email and of course media playback. That makes sense for me. Cheapskates get entry into the fashionable world of Apple and you choke off competitors even on the low end.
    Then you also have the specialty markets (schools, doctors, etc) for whom specialized apps could be built to further help build a solid base.

    The only serious WOW I can see Apple delivering on this is the initial unveiling of the re-birth of magazines but as I said earlier I don’t think that will resonate outside of the launch event when people have to lay down money.

  • westech

    Oops! I guess my previous post got lost in the ether.

    An iThingy four times the size of an iPod Touch would be 9 inches by four inches. The cost should be less than four times that of the 8 G iTouch, which sells for $199, increased by whatever new components are added.

    The tactile keyboard in Apple’s recent patent would probably be expensive, but I doubt that the technology for this is ready yet.

    As with the iPhone, the first product to market will lack features which the pundits will wail about. All in good time. Open development via the SDK and the App store took time to develop. I don’t believe that SJ was reluctant, only not ready.

  • http://www.austinsteele.blogspot.com bOMBfACTORY

    I’ll agree with barfat that Apple won’t anchor this mythical device to anyone’s not-ready-for-primetime cell phone network as that would just double the pain they’re already feeling dealing with the spotty competence of AT&T. But here’s a thought: What if this upcoming event isn’t to announce a tablet device at all? What if Steve is diabolically letting the tablet rumors run rampant so he can, once again, knock our collective socks off with something so insanely great and different that we’ve simply had no idea how badly we need one! Me? I’m STILL just waiting for new cinema displays…

  • ChuckO

    If you take a more objective look at Apple you’ll find they don’t make insanely great products. They just deliver products that work and work sensibly. They only look insanely great compared to the crap other companies deliver.

    What can they deliver on the 27th to blow your mind? A 3d interface for interacting with the screen? Who cares? That’s eye candy. All they can do is deliver a useful product for a decent price. The iPhone doesn’t do anything any other smart phone didn’t already do it just did all of it well or reliably.

    I predict another Apple event with a general sense of disappointment followed by the product meeting it’s fate in the market place.

  • MarkyMark

    I can’t imagine why anyone would want to lug around something this large that lacks a keyboard, but we shall see. Somehow I doubt that they’re going to be able to work 1080p HD resolution into that form-factor!

    A remote, unlikely possibility for connectivity is Clear WiMAX, now deploying (complete with teething problems). My limited experience with it so far is that when it has a good signal it is fantastic; but getting that good signal is problematic. Unfortunately loading it up with millions of Apple iWhatevers streaming HD video would probably brown it out too, a la AT&T. Backhaul, backhaul, backhaul…

    Also note that WiFi is increasingly going free in public locations, as the dominoes fall; McDonald’s, airports, almost-free Starbucks, etc etc. Although in my city some indie espresso joints have yanked it out!

  • tundraboy

    A few points:

    1. If the circuitry to run the tablet is not much more than the Touch’s, then there’s a lot of room for batteries behind the screen. The up time on this thing will be pretty long.

    2. So it sounds like Apple is expanding the iPhone OS’s capabilities into large screen passive computing. i.e. mostly viewing (with some manipulation through touch gestures) rather than creating content. One step closer then towards merging the iPhone OS and Mac OS functions to create . . .

    3. The One OS To Rule Them All: Where hardware is powerful enough so that the Mobile OS can perform all the desktop functions if you connect a screen and keyboard to it. Your desktop computer is your mobile device. (You leave the monitor and keyboard on your desk at home.) Don’t need to both a desktop/laptop and a smartphone .. .

    4. Which, with the advent of cloud computing, is how Apple wrests the consumer desktop market from Windows. Not by customers supplanting their Windows machines with Macs, but by completely discarding their desktops and just getting Apple’s mobile desktop computer.

    That’s why Microsoft is desperate to maintain a presence in the smartphone market. Though it might be too late.

  • tundraboy

    Furthermore, I won’t claim to be the first to think about it, if you really need a laptop for content creation on the go, then Apple can sell a laptop dock. Screen and keyboard in a laptop form factor and you dock the mobile device where the touch pad is. There’s your laptop, smartphone screen is the touch pad.

  • http://www.stat.ucla.edu/~jose HG

    westech writes: “The only serious WOW I can see Apple delivering on this is the initial unveiling of the re-birth of magazines…”

    You’re correct that there are ways of obtaining information for free but at the expense of my time to do the research. I think the Google search paradigm is showing its limitations and an intelligently bundled (mashed together) presentation is emerging.

    iTunes and the App Store have shown that people will pay for content. Apple is adding value with the Extras and LP features which I accept for a reasonable incremental fee. Apple is showing that mashed together relevant content and information that’s convenient to access can pay off.

    I think the publishers need to make adjustments, just like the record labels. They no longer monopolize information, but that’s not to say that less money means extinction. I still want to read good articles and depend on trusted sources of information. I’ll pay for that if it’s reasonably priced and the service serves my needs. It’s important that it serve my needs. It can’t be too much information (like cable subscription of which I only watch less than 2%) and it can’t be limited to one publisher as is currently the case. It needs to be ala carte and the content of my choosing. Then I’ll pay.

    Once freed from producing hard copy, the publication businesses are freed to spend their money on in-depth research and good writers. There’s a symbioses there which could mean a renaissance for the print medium.

  • http://themacadvocate.com TheMacAdvocate

    I agree that the device will be exist primarily to leverage iTMS content. I also believe that MobileMe could experience its next evolutionary step as a way to allow ubiquitous content across all Apple devices. The precedent of iSync, iTunes’ “authorized devices” and Back to My Mac’s Wide-Area Bonjour make this more than realistic.

    As Dan mentions, a meager upgrade of MobileMe itself won’t encourage its use as a subsidizing agent, but seamless, ubiquitous content and device sync would certainly make MobileMe an attractive iSlate enhancement.

  • gus2000

    Daniel is right on the money about one thing: the iSlate’s most prominent features will be the ones left out.

    Tablets up until now were keyboard-less notebooks. Why not just sell the whole notebook and throw in a free pair of mittens? Now it’s a tablet! Yay? So they gave us a new physical way of interacting with our machines, but the software was trapped in the old keyboard/mouse paradigm. Win Mobile used a Start button for Christs sake!

    The iPhone changed all that. We used to laugh about people shaking their computer, but now we actually can! Shaking, tapping, and pinching collectively amounted to a new interface, as monumental as the introduction of the GUI and mouse.

    I know all the tech-heads out there will immediately want to turn the iSlate back into a laptop, but they’re missing the point. The beauty is in the simplicity.

  • ChuckO

    I disagree. I think magazines and newspapers are in this trouble because they stink for a number of reasons. There are some exceptions of course but by and large like the movie industry it’s a tidal wave of shit that is barely worth wading through. If nothing else this is Darwinian culling of the herd due to a period of over investment. I don’t think a technology update is going to reverse that and shouldn’t.

    BUT! It would be nice to be able to pick a magazine from iTunes instead of going to a store for it. It won’t be the thing that get’s me to buy an iTablet though and I’ll be surprised if they can come up with something that will.

  • ChuckO

    To me the thing has to be Apple’s answer to the netbook. A $500 device that does everything people buy netbooks for but does it well and get’s them into the Appleverse. That’s all it has to be and device sales will follow and app and media sales will follow that. Rack up another win for Apple!

  • stefn

    Great article, Daniel. Hope you are healing.

    Features and benefits that Apple can leverage that can make the Tablet a success:
    * OSX guts
    * Multitouch UI (and it will “have me at scrolling”)
    * App Store, app pricing structure, app developer pool, app publishing, and on and on
    * iLife/iWork/iTunes apps, text, numbers, presentations, music, video, etc.
    * GPS, location services

    F/Bs Apple needs to add that can contribute as well:
    * Instant start up
    * Keyboard docking
    * Decent camera, image stabilization, image editing, etc.

    And the biggie: Location based purchasing services

  • ChuckO

    stefn, Your going to be disappointed. They aren’t going to give Mac users a reason not to buy a “real” Mac. They are looking to get netbook users that they can get to spend a bit more for an Apple device.

    Think about it. It’s the only thing that makes sense. You guys will be initially disappointed and maybe won’t rush out and get one but eventually you’ll get over that and end up buying one. In the meantime a lot of people who haven’t been able to buy a Mac for themselves or their kid will get one.

    Mark my words. I’ve nailed it.

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    @ChuckO “2a. Th rebirth of magazines and newspapers. These have died because the web does them better for the most part.”

    The web killed print and its costs and lead times. But it did not deliver a suitable business model to support real journalism and research. So instead of in-depth, serious reporting, we have fluff. Paid news would fix this, at least for smart people with a few bucks.

    One might also say that “nutritious meals died because overprocessed crap in tin cans does population feeding better for the most part.”

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    Another flashy technology I didn’t mention that Apple could use to launch the Tablet into the New Decade:

    That cool mini-projector, or a slot to accomodate one.

    I also forgot to mention TheMacAdvocate’s point of MobileMe/BTMM. Being able to access your home puter from anywhere would be a cool trick.

  • http://themacadvocate.com TheMacAdvocate

    People who can’t afford an Apple notebook could also get an iPhone or an iPod touch.

    This new device will in no way be a vehicle for people who couldn’t afford a Mac to get one. This device will not duplicate the functionality of a MacBook/Pro. If you think this is going to be “Apple’s netbook”, you don’t understand Apple as a company on a fundamental level.

  • ChuckO

    “The web killed print and its costs and lead times. But it did not deliver a suitable business model to support real journalism and research. So instead of in-depth, serious reporting, we have fluff. Paid news would fix this, at least for smart people with a few bucks.”

    Not sure I agree. This blog is a terrific example of something you can’t pay for in the magazine world (I do support Roughly Drafted through donations by the way) most business journalism is hopelessly compromised by it’s relationship with advertisers and lemming like non-thought. But time will tell on the effect of the web on information gathering and reporting. I think it’s too soon to tell, though.

    One might also say that “nutritious meals died because overprocessed crap in tin cans does population feeding better for the most part.”

    This is a tough one. It certainly seems unlikely with growing populations that we’re going to change this or even can. It’s a shame in rich countries like the US the amount of processed food we eat and certainly has an enormous health effect. There definitely seems to be a strong correlation between obesity and economic strata and/or education and the consumption of processed food.

  • donarb

    Oh, yes. When I saw the commercial for the new LG phone with the projector, I immediately thought that would be something that Apple would go for. Right now, manufacturers are spending lots of time and money trying to create bigger screens. If Apple can do a paradigm shift wherein anybody can watch a 32″ image where ever they are (work, hotel room, dorm room), they’d have an instant hit. A projector has all kinds of uses, family slide shows, business presentations, movie nights. To paraphrase those BASF commercials, Apple doesn’t invent the technology, they just make it better.

  • benlewis

    Thank you for yet another great article. I’ve read quite a bit about the “what” and the “how” of the tablet, but not enough around the “why”. This article addresses that question better than anything else I’ve read to date. Still, I haven’t heard a really compelling argument for why Apple would want to introduce this device. Nothing they do seems haphazard or irrational. Even products that don’t work out seem to have had strategic thinking behind them. What market will this device change or come to define? What will it cause us to do that we never did before, and didn’t realize we needed to do? The iPhone answers that question in a dozen ways. So does the iPod. My guess is that strength and success of this device will come from how well it ties multiple other Apple devices together. Apple TV seems like a candidate for this kind of enhancement. Maybe iLife too?

  • josh

    nice work as usual, daniel. the one thing that i’m surprised hasn’t been mentioned more is what i consider to be the killer app: reading. the tablet needs to take on the kindle/nook directly. the e-reader thing is going to become a huge market. nobody is going to carry an e-reader and a tablet, so the tablet has to be good enough to replace the e-reader. this is tough because the e-reader is more comfortable for reading and it runs a lot longer without a recharge.

  • kelvinlefab

    Great article Dan. My only wish for the Apple tablet is that it will be able to run Keynote. That way, I can use the tablet in Presenter’s View and see upcoming slides in a presentation. The Keynote remote currently is too tiny to read.

  • ChuckO

    TheMacAdvocate, You’re wrong sir! I do understand Apple and that’s why I will be proved right. Apple wants to provide products for every price point ($99 iPhone – have you heard of it?) they just don’t, to their credit, do it by offering a crummy product like in the Windows world. A $500 iTablet that does email, internet and media is a fantastic product for people who don’t need more.

  • stefn

    @ChuckO, 32:

    Don’t you worry about me: I am always disappointed and always amazed with what Apple comes up with ‘cuz it doesn’t work from my assumptions ever.

    And Apple knows more than you too: Obviously it’s ready to move into a new category of computer. You would do well to ask why and how.

  • commun5

    Some of the earlier commenters are dead right about the market for this tablet. Media consumption is not going to be enough to sell the tablet. If the tablet has no touch-based media production software, it has no unique functions, and it will die. The combination of iPhone/iPod Touch and a Mac does everything the media consumption tablet can do and allows you to make phone calls and run many other kinds of software with a physical keyboard and touchpad/mouse.

  • ChuckO

    stefn, I think Apple know they need to have an offering for netbook buyers to get them into the Wonderful World of Apple. I think all the fantasists that think Steve is coming with magic will be disappointed because what could he deliver to live up to that? I think you guy’s that think it makes sense for Apple to deliver an iTablet that runs full Mac apps are (with sincere respect) high as a kite. I’d like to see a response as to why a Mac in that form factor beats a MacBook even if the answer is you already own a MacBook.

    I also want to clarify something in my post # 36 in response to Dan’s post # 33. I was rushing out of work when I read and responded quickly. I hope no one thought I was looking for special treatment in response to my posts when I mentioned I support this site with (my meager) financial support. I just meant that I try to pay for what I perceive as quality. I also apologize if my generalized comments on magazine quality are insensitive. I’m a computer developer and have been downsized and live with the threat of off-shoring so I am somewhat insensitive to others in a similar position. Maybe I’m not understanding how dire the situation is but I assume the some amount of both junk and quality magazines will survive the current shakeout with less of both but probably a similar proportion. Fluff is one of the opiates of the masses and unfortunately the disastrous last 8 years doesn’t seem to have woken many people up.

  • stefn

    @ChuckO 44
    You know, I didn’t say Apple would deliver full Mac apps; I noted that these apps are there to work from and with.

    But to answer your question: Why would a Tablet beat a MacBook? To that, there are lots and lots of answers. I think it boils down to, again, Apple knowing what it’s doing better than you or me. I do think Apple knows that this will be the next step toward creating a true consumer computer that is simple, safe, and eminently satisfying in a way that notebook are not ‘cuz they grew of the hereditary branch labeled PC.

    So take the iPod Touch, stretch a bit every dimension, length, width, speed, features, benefits. But keep the simplicity, security, and satisfaction. And there you have it. And, yes, do hook it up to some great content sources, like the original iPod did with tunes and the Touch with apps.

    What content? Dunno. I always think of Google as knocking this issue out of the park when it put a blank text field on a browser page and let the user supply in the content. Nobody will ever do it better than that.

    Lastly, to contest a bit of what Daniel said, the first Tablet will be high priced simply ‘cuz Apple allows charges the “me firsters” a tax against development costs.

  • ChuckO

    stefn, Thanks for the response. An interesting vision. Light app versions of the real thing seems unlikely to me for a lot of reasons. My take on Apple’s future is the MacBooks and iMacs get paired down as much as possible in terms of connections and parts that could be peripherals and the prices stay the same or go down slightly while the internals continue to be toward the upper end of the range. Wouldn’t try to guess where the iPhones going. And once again the iTablet in the entry level position.

  • http://crankyoldnutcase.blogspot.com/ The Mad Hatter

    There is also one last way Apple could make the Tablet affordable: choose to make less money on it initially in order to suck all the oxygen out of the tablet market, ensuring that it remained the key player in mobile devices and software. By selling the Tablet near cost, as it does with Apple TV, Apple could create a huge installed base and quickly bring down component costs via economies of scale. Once it sold its first five million, there would be intense pricing pressures keeping rival devices from entering the market with me-too devices.

    That’s my personal take on what they will do, and I’ll bet you $20.00 that there will be screams of ‘Monopoly’ before you can say ‘Tablet’.

    But as to Microsoft having a ‘Viable Desktop PC Platform’ – horse manure. Anything as defective as Windows is not a viable product in a competitive market. Oh, wait. That’s why Microsoft doesn’t want a competitive market.

  • ChuckO

    As the responses to this article make plain there is a lot of passion around this device. It’s amazing and probably speaks well of it’s chances for success. I think like with the iPhone and the app store and the way especially games have taken off for the iPhone iPod Touch the important thing is to get a terrific product out there and a killer use will find it.

  • http://crankyoldnutcase.blogspot.com/ The Mad Hatter


    I disagree. If Apple hasn’t found a killer use for it, they’d be fools to release it. Since it appears that they do intend to release it, they must know something that we don’t.

    And really their track record over the last 5 years has been pretty good. I expect that this will be a success to.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotonchop/ zaxzan

    Looking back at the Apple F4Q09 (Qtr End 9/26/09) Earnings Call Transcript, especially in the Q&A afterwards and how some of the answers might relate to the pending tablet thingamajig pricing.

    Peter Oppenheimer, in response to Richard Gardner of Citigroup said –
    “Let me start with gross margin and I will come back to revenue. We expect gross margins to decline sequentially about 34%, primarily as a result of four factors:
    First, for the new products that we have and will announce, we are delivering greater value to our customers and these products have lower gross margins than their predecessors …”

    Timothy D. Cook, in response to Mike Abramsky of RBC Capital Markets said –
    “… plus the very strong product pipeline that we have, we feel very, very good about sitting up and competing against anyone.
    Frankly I think that people are really just trying to catch up with the first iPhone that was announced two years ago and we’ve long since moved beyond that.”

    In response to this question by Bill Shope of Credit Suisse.
    “…Last year you provided some commentary around longer-term gross margin trends. Do you have any thoughts on this for Fiscal 2010, or at least how we should think about this longer term?”
    Timothy D. Cook said –
    Great, thanks guys. Last year you provided some commentary around longer-term gross margin trends. Do you have any thoughts on this for Fiscal 2010, or at least how we should think about this longer term?
    I can give you some qualitative thoughts. For the December quarter I have guided to about 34%. I don’t want to make forecasts today for future quarters on a quantitative basis, but I think there are two things that you have to be aware of.
    First, for some key components costs are rising. I think that is visible to you. Second, we are continuing to focus on delivering state of the art products at price points our competitors can’t match and we are going to continue to provide ever increasing value to our customers.”

    Transcript from seekingalpha