Desktops

What Features Will a Tablet Need Before You Buy One?

So Apple's apparently about to introduce something revolutionary--or at least, a new creation of some sort.

Guessing at what that creation might be seems to be the only sport of interest on the Internet today. My guess? Going by the look of the invitation, perhaps it's a revival of MacPaint (now with thousands of colors!)...or perhaps it's a graphics tablet to compete with Wacom...or maybe it's iPollock, a new device to simulate the works of Jackson Pollock, who seems to have had some influence on the invitation's design.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, the net's collective wisdom is actually correct this time, and the new creation is the long-discussed, long-rumored, near-Unicorn-like in its perseverance, Apple tablet computer. Assuming that's what we'll see on Wednesday, let's get down to the really important question, at least for me: Do I want one?

The gut answer, of course, is yes--any died-in-the-wool Apple fan will want one the second Steve Jobs walks on stage carrying this long-awaited machine. (For ease of reference, I'll simply refer to this mythical device as The Tablet from here on out.) After that initial "wow" moment, though, I expect reality will creep in--reality in the form of bills to be paid, food to be purchased, college funds to be set aside, and other things that all place demands my limited discretionary income.

So what will it take for me to step up to the plate and purchase The Tablet? I've given this a bit of thought, considering how I work (mainly from home), what other technology gizmos I usually take with me when traveling, and things I might plan on doing in the future. In no particular order, here are three key features The Tablet must have to make it onto my "must buy" list.

Fast and easy text input

As my colleague Dan Moren recently put it, there are numerous methods that Apple could use to help users get text into The Tablet. I hope The Tablet will support Bluetooth keyboards, for those times when you'd like to input a lot of text. Beyond that, I'll leave it to Apple's engineers to come up with an efficient text input method for this jumbo-sized device. But even if The Tablet sports the most advanced GUI ever seen, complete with a 3D desktop space and a new metaphor for opening documents and applications, it still needs to provide a fast and efficient way for users to input text--and more than just a little text.

User-expandable storage

While I can live with--though I'm not thrilled by--the hardware-limited 16GB of storage on my iPhone, I would need The Tablet to offer some way of adding more storage. This could be something as simple as a USB port for connecting a thumb drive, or an SD slot for camera cards, or (wishful thinking) an ExpressCard slot for inserting a solid-state drive. I really don't want to have to manage the files I have saved on The Tablet to stay within some arbitrary hardware limit, and there are any number of ways for Apple's engineers to provide this expansion.

Some may say "but you'll be in 'the cloud,' so that's where you'll store everything." I hope this isn't the case; I don't ever want a device that requires an Internet connection to even have basic usability. Even the iPhone is usable when it's in Airplane mode, and lacking all connectivity. I want a way to store my files locally, not just when I happen to be online.

Works like a Mac

When I travel, I already carry two gizmos with me--my iPhone and my MacBook Pro. I have no desire to carry three devices--especially one that might feature a 10-inch display--so I need laptop-like functionality out of The Tablet. That way, I can leave the MacBook Pro behind, and just carry my iPhone and The Tablet. Beyond the typical net-type activities (check e-mail, surf the Web), I want to be able to edit spreadsheets, work on word processing documents, and create presentations on The Tablet. But it's more than that...

I also want to be able to jot down quick ideas, not necessarily in a word processor. Or create a chart in something like OmniGraffle. I want to use Screen Sharing to look at my Mac back home, or to help a relative with a tech support question. I want to be able to hold text, audio, and video chats with people. I want to install programs of my choosing, not just those available to me via a pre-approved store. I want to use more than one program at once, based on my needs. In short, I want The Tablet to be more of a scaled-down Mac than a scaled-up iPhone.

So there's my list of features that The Tablet needs to have to earn a spot on my must-buy list. I suspect that the need to have it work more like a Mac and less like an iPhone will wind up being the show-stopper for me--especially if the rumors are correct and The Tablet runs some version of the iPhone's OS. But there's just no way I can travel without at least most of the functionality of my MacBook Pro, and I have no desire to carry two relatively-sizable objects with me when traveling.

If, somehow, the iPhone OS can be extended to offer those capabilities, then that's great--I'd like nothing more than to put The Tablet on my must buy list! I guess I'll find out in a week or so...assuming we aren't actually going to see the unveiling of MacPaint Pro XXXIV.

What about you, though? What features would you need The Tablet to have before it became a must-have on your shopping list?

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