The Unofficial Apple Weblog posted Why a Mac tablet from Apple doesn’t make sense earlier today. I commented briefly there, but this seems as good a time as any to spout my theory of the Apple tablet.
(I bored several of you with this in person a few months ago. If you’re one of those people, move along… nothing new to see here.)
Apple has been quietly building applications into OS X that are nice little toys on a desktop but would be essential features on a tablet. Ink, in particular, strikes me as a byproduct in its current form. Handwriting recognition — great, but only if you have a Wacom tablet. Granted, many graphic designers do have tablets. Still, this makes more sense to me as something that was designed for touch-screen use, with tablet compatibility thrown in. (“But we don’t have touch screens yet.” “Well, we do have these Wacom things. Make it work with those and we can put it into 10.2!”) I bought a tablet just to use Ink. (Bad wrists. Typing hurts.) It works very well, but I find it quite awkward to use, since you have to write off to the side while watching the screen for results. It’d be far more usable if you could write directly on the screen, and I can’t get the suspicion out of my mind that Ink was designed just for that.
Other tablet-friendly apps: VoiceOver, Front Row.
“Front Row?” Yes. Using a remote control with your monitor? No matter how large it is: not very useful. No doubt Apple has media center aspirations for Front Row, but I think other uses await.
But we’ll come back to that. Let’s talk laptops.
The built-in iSight cameras on the recent laptop models arouse my suspicions. Useful as-is? Yep. Even more useful in a mobile device? Yep. Think video phone. Think mobile video conferencing.
But we’d have to have pervasive networking for that, right? Well, maybe. One of the things Macs do really well (as Michael was just explaining to someone the other day) is switch networks without a lot of fuss or prior setup. “None of your trusted wireless networks can be found. Would you like to join [network x]?” But of course, wireless isn’t everywhere. For this to really work, we’d also need to use cell phones as modems, or maybe do a deal with cell carriers… oh, wait.
Then there’s the Intel switch. “Steph,” you’re saying. “They had lots of reasons for switching to Intel. Their old processors were holding them back, keeping them from competing with Windows PCs.” Sure. No question. But remember, one of the big issues with the G4 PowerBooks was heat. I have one. It runs hot. Too hot, often, to use on my lap during summer, when I’m wearing shorts. The heat problem actually prevented Apple from releasing G5 laptops by all accounts, and switching to Intels opened the door to computers that can be held comfortably on bare skin. It allowed them to upgrade the line to the current MacBooks… and it’ll allow them to release something you could hold in your hands without burning the skin off your fingers.
Like, say, a full-screen video iPod.
“Wait a sec,” you say. “Aren’t we talking tablet rumors?”
What if they’re the same thing?
TUAW points out, quite correctly, that the tablet PC market sucks. Commenters point out that the mp3 player market did, too, before the iPod, and I agree with them. Apple is the company that can turn around a slumped market. They could probably bring out a sexy little tablet and have the core Apple audience ooohing and aaahing, and maybe win more converts.
But why do it that way, when they can instead tap the enormous iPod audience? Give people the larger, full-screen iPod they’ve been demanding, with touch-screen controls… and Front Row as the primary interface. “Here are all your songs, videos, and photos… and oh, by the way, the full OS X is running in the background, so if you want to use it for web surfing or video conferencing or reading textbooks1 in your classroom, you can.”
Have you been in an Apple store lately? It’s funny: people come in for the iPods, and they get sidetracked because they have to walk past the iMacs and laptops to get there. They’re clearly attracted to the things; the problem is getting them in the door in the first place. After all, you can buy an iPod practically anywhere. So what do you do, if you’re Apple? Well, if I’m Apple, I slip consumers a mickey and put my shiny OS right into the iPods.
And that’s my theory of the Apple tablet: it’s called an iPod. Hey, sometimes you have to redefine a problem before you can solve it.
ETA 4 pm: via Daring Fireball, another analysis refuting the tablet rumors that ignores the existence of Ink. I can only assume people keep forgetting about this feature because the preference pane doesn’t show up until you plug in a Wacom device.
1 The ebook reader market sucks only a little less than the tablet market. ‘Twould be nice if Apple could fix that too, and they do have a long history of pushing their machines for classroom use.
You are very smart.
That’s all I wanted to say.
Ha! Only on Fridays.
I really don’t believe that a combined tablet/video iPod would be a great device. I just can’t envision writing on an iPod, even if I had the full screen on which to do so. Certainly I can’t envision writing English sentences as I would on a small notepad unless there was an extremely high resolution on the touch- part of the touch-screen (not necessarily a high video resolution). And you really can’t increase the size of the stock iPod very much before it ceases to become the ultraportable device that it is. Without the portability, they will lose a huge amount of their appeal. Such a device would have to target a completely new market (which isn’t infeasible, but comparing it to either the Macbook line or the iPod line will be a huge marketing mistake for Apple).
I do agree on the eBook point, though. A tablet+ebook reader, along with adding eBooks to iTunes, would be a potentially powerful offering if it was competitively priced. I’d be pretty likely to buy one, in this case.
The screen size vs. portability problem is the key to the whole thing. I don’t know what the answer is. But did you ever try writing using Graffiti on the Palm OS? It wasn’t bad at all; you just had to remember to write each character on top of the previous one, rather than going off to the right. It was actually far easier than using the itty bitty screen keypad, once you got used to Graffiti’s demands. Ink really isn’t there yet. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to be based on the Newton’s handwriting recognition, which I’m told is even better than Graffiti.
I think they could go a little bigger with a video iPod. I’ve seen a couple of ultraportable PCs that I wouldn’t mind carrying around if they’d run the Mac OS.