Given the rumor mill chatter, it sounds like the mythical Apple tablet is all but a done deal. People seem to be talking with certainty about how, either later this year or early next year, Apple will unveil a multitouch tablet with a 10-inch screen, 3G wireless broadband, and iPhone OS possibly subsidized by a Verizon Wireless contract. It would basically be a big iPod Touch.
I’m no Apple hater, and I welcome an Apple device to the (don’t call it a) netbook market, but I've got to think this device would be a flop. This concept is such a train wreck from start to finish that I don’t know where to begin. (Image used here is from a 2008 article in Mac/Life)
The tablet form-factor in general is good only for a few things. It’s great for artists and for specialized applications like taking orders. Note-taking in class is debatable since many people are better at typing than handwriting. There are lots of things that tablets are not good at. Take watching movies, for example. Since a tablet is designed for lying flat, you have to be looking straight down to view the computer. Actually, that makes it suck for most things. I guess Apple could build in some sort of stand, but that detracts away from the sort of sexy minimalism that it is famous for.
While I think a multi-touch display is a great idea, using it to host a virtual keyboard takes too much real estate on a petite 10-inch display. Eliminating the physical keyboard would make the device very thin, but at the expense of the screen protection a closed laptop offers.
The iPhone and iPod Touch work as keyboard-less devices because they are designed to be hand-held—something which would be difficult and clumsy with a 10-inch tablet.
While the iPhone OS might seem like an obvious choice due to its small footprint and contribution toward long battery life, it has glaring limitations on a larger device. A huge audience for a tablet is the artist community, and they need full-fledged OS X to run the apps they’re accustomed to. While Apple certainly has reason to want to build on the success of its App Store, those apps are designed to run on a 3.5-inch screen and most won’t translate very well to something larger.
Bundling it with wireless broadband service would find a limited audience. In recessionary times, subsidizing the initial price has its appeal, but how many people are going to want another monthly bill, especially when they already pay for home and mobile internet, and Wi-Fi is freely available in many locations?
I think there are a number of things Apple can do to successfully compete with the netbook market. It could launch a 10-inch touch screen version of the MacBook Pro and have a hit. If Apple wants to release something mind-blowing, it could release a clamshell device with two displays and have the bottom one double as a virtual keyboard and multi-touch input device. If Apple does release a device that resembles the rumored tablet, it will need some killer twist that nobody saw coming. It wouldn’t be the first time Apple pulled something like that off.
Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.