Monday, January 18, 2010

Thoughts on the upcoming Apple Tablet

Much of the tech world has been obsessing over the rumored upcoming Apple tablet, which is expected to be unveiled to the world on January 27. So I hesitate to add more to that, but there are so many rumors out there that it's hard to wade through them, so I thought I would throw in a high level perspective on what we are likely to see, and include links to some of the more interesting articles I've come across.

I think the announcement is particularly interesting as Steve Jobs is said to have stopped Apple tablet projects before - according to the New York Times:
Another former Apple executive who was there at the time said the tablets kept getting shelved at Apple because Mr. Jobs, whose incisive critiques are often memorable, asked, in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom.
So if they are announcing this (and you buy this quote, which is plausible), there has to be something substantial about the tablet beyond just being a MacBook without a keyboard or a larger iPhone.

So I think (not based on any inside info, just on filtering all the rumors and thinking about what makes sense from an Apple perspective) that there will be two big ground-breaking things about the Apple tablet.

First, it is widely predicted that the tablet will be Apple's attempt to redefine the world of printed media (like the iPod redefined the music recording industry and the iPhone redefined the mobile phone).
This certainly makes sense. The Kindle and other eReader devices have made an interesting start in that space, but as I said in my initial review of the Kindle, it is good for sequential reading of text, but not good for more random browsing, like reading newspapers and magazines. And indeed the Kindle is only good for text, not for other kinds of media. With the Apple tablet I would assume that of course you will be able to browse arbitrary web sites, but imagine that it is also highly likely that there may be a simplified full screen user interface, which would provide a great platform for magazines, newspapers, book publishers etc to create compelling multi-media content including text, photos, video, audio, etc. Available content would presumably include a mix of free and paid, like the current app store / iTunes models (and this would give the struggling traditional news media industry another potential business model for the future). One interesting potential screen technology for such a device comes from Pixel Qi, who have been linked with the Apple tablet in some posts. Obviously it would also be a good device for watching movies, TV shows, youtube and other video content.

However, I think that doing that alone is probably not enough to hit the size of market that Apple would want. The tablet clearly won't replace an iPhone, as it won't fit in your pocket. So the question would be how many people, if they already have a smart phone and a laptop, would buy another device in between those two (in size and cost), with a lot of overlap in functionality. This is partly a cost question, and partly one of convenience - would traveling techies, even devout Apple fan boys like me, want to carry three devices everywhere: iPhone, Tablet and MacBook? I think not. So I believe that the second big thing is that the device has to be a good replacement for a laptop too, and again there are plenty of rumors that support that.

For this to be the case, obviously there needs to be a mechanism for text entry that is a good alternative to typing on a physical keyboard. A simple on screen touch keyboard probably isn't going to be good enough to persuade people to give up laptops in large volumes. So I think Apple must have more up its sleeve here. One of the more intriguing rumor threads that has appeared in various places is that the new device will have a "steep learning curve", and that the way that you interact with it is "unexpected". Obviously having a steep learning curve is not something that you would expect in general from an Apple device, especially one aimed at the mass market, unless there is a compelling reason for this. So I think that this has to be around a new mechanism for text entry, and more broadly interaction with the device. Apple acquired a company called Fingerworks in 2005, which had a lot of interesting technology in the areas of multi-touch interaction, gestures, and text entry, and Apple also owns a lot of patents in this area - these are discussed in various places including AppleInsider (who also discuss a tactile touch keyboard) and gizmodo. The old Fingerworks web site was recently taken down, which has increased speculation that their technology is involved. One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the use of "chords", which means that you can trigger different actions by pressing different combinations of fingers (for example, your thumb and third finger versus your thumb and fourth finger) - this video at CrunchGear gives some examples. Another is an approach to user interaction where the keyboard and pointing device are integrated, you don't have to move your hands from one place to another as you do with a touchpad or mouse.

So in summary, the two key things that I am looking forward to seeing are a big focus on updating printed media (magazines, newspapers, books), and something intriguing and new in terms of user interaction, covering text entry and new ways of using multi-touch surfaces. The latter could make the tablet another major step forward for computing in general (as the iPhone was in many ways ... I am amazed at how much of my "computing" I do on my iPhone these days).

One final comment is that to meet its aims as a news reading device, you will need the ability to be connected to the Internet all the time, but most people will not want to pay for two separate wireless data plans for their iPhone and Tablet, so it will be interesting to see how they will address that. Obviously I would assume they would support WiFi, but I would also assume that some or all models would also have 3G wireless built in. Will there be an option for simple tethering with an iPhone I wonder (if Fake Steve Jobs' rant - bad language warning! - has been enough to make AT&T finally get their act together!)? Or will there at least be some sort of package deal on a data plan if you have both an iPhone and an Apple Tablet?

I'm looking forward to the announcement on January 27 :) !!


möök said...

The iSlate looks like an oversized iPhone.

Peter Batty said...

Well actually nobody really knows what it looks like yet - the picture above is just one of many guesses that people have concocted!

Jose said...

Being in the market for a new laptop this was a really useful read. I'm hoping the 'steep learning curve' won't be too much of a jump for a PC user.