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Summary:

This is the first in a series of 7 posts in the 7 days prior to Apple’s January 27 media event in which I explore various possibilities for an Apple Tablet and other potential announcements. The world is expecting Apple to announce a new tablet, or […]

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This is the first in a series of 7 posts in the 7 days prior to Apple’s January 27 media event in which I explore various possibilities for an Apple Tablet and other potential announcements.

The world is expecting Apple to announce a new tablet, or slate, style computer on January 27. Most predictions peg the device as essentially an iPod touch with a 10″ screen. But simply scaling Mac OS X Mobile to a larger screen size isn’t likely, as the operating system that currently powers iPhone and iPod touch models is optimized for their specific screens. The question arises, then, as to how users will input text into the Apple tablet.

The iPhone keyboard works well for several reasons. The device is small enough that you can type with just one hand while holding the phone with the same hand. The keys are surprisingly large, even in portrait mode, and Apple technology makes keys invisibly larger based on likely letter combinations. Auto-correction works well enough that the easiest way to become a fast typist on the iPhone is to suspend your disbelief that you’ll make mistakes, and just keep typing.

The same keyboard on a larger screen, whether still small or scaled up, wouldn’t work nearly as well. The biggest problem would be holding the tablet and typing at the same time. If the form factor is anything like most suspect it will be, the weight and balance of the tablet would make such input impossible, requiring users to instead hold it with one hand and hunt-and-peck to type with the other.

Current Lines of Thought

Perhaps the most obvious solution would be to split the onscreen keyboard and push it to the edges, allowing users to hold the device and type with their thumbs. A similar approach was used with a number of ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), such as the Samsung Q1. This doesn’t strike me as particularly elegant or particularly Apple, but it could work, and might be the easiest solution technically.

Another option is an altogether different keyboard interface purposefully designed for five-finger typing with one hand. Users could hold the device in one hand, and quickly type with all fingers of the other. Combined with advanced multi-touch gestures for text input and overall control, this method is reminiscent of Microsoft Surface and Minority Report.

Unlike the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple could also allow the tablet to work with hardware keyboards, either via Bluetooth or USB connections. The current Apple wireless keyboard would make a perfect companion for times when touch input isn’t sufficient, with the touchscreen display eliminating the need to also have a mouse. Using a traditional keyboard also strikes me as very inelegant and un-Apple, but may be needed to drive mass adoption.

A Hardware Solution

However, a hardware keyboard designed specifically for the tablet and doubles as a dock might fit the bill. Given Apple’s apparent cloud ambitions (building a data center in North Carolina, purchasing LaLa, etc.) and cost concerns, the tablet is likely to have a small amount of onboard storage compared to laptops. Chances are that Apple will view the tablet as a cloud computing device, or one of several satellites orbiting around a full Mac serving as the digital media hub. Like the iPhone or iPod touch, the tablet may only hold a portion of your songs, movies, pictures and other media, meaning it will need to connect for syncing. A dock for syncing that doubles as a keyboard, with Jon Ives’ design panache, would be an excellent way to meet core needs while also extending the functionality of the device.

Given all of these options, I’m expecting three things: a variant of the software user interface that further limits users need to input text even more than the iPhone already does; an advanced multi-touch user interface that is optimized for five-finger input; and the option to use a keyboard–possibly a new keyboard that doubles as a dock–when necessary. The next-generation multi-touch capabilities that Apple has patented and developed are likely too advanced for many of today’s computer users. I expect the tablet multi-touch user interface to follow a similar path of increasing complexity and capability over several years as the trackpad and Magic Mouse have.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Rumored Apple Tablet: Opportunities Too Big to Ignore

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  1. I love theappleblog, and I’m all about information leaks about new products and such, but am I the only one that is kind of tired of speculation about the Tablet, especially since we’re only a week out from actually knowing?

    Nothing personal, guys, since every other blog in the world is doing the same thing — I just don’t get why.

  2. Interesting thoughts.

    Apple might also introduce voice-driven elements to the interface, like it has with the iPod shuffle.

    I hold a different belief as to the storage capabilities of the device. I think that it’s far more likely that the device will have as much disk space as, say, a macbook air. Also, keep in mind that even though the iPod may be a device revolving around a “full mac”, the iPod classic now stores up to 160 GB of data, which isn’t shabby even for a laptop.

    That said, I agree with you on the idea that the tablet will gain functionality when docked/connected to another mac. There’s somethings you can do with a physical keyboard that you just can’t do with a touchscreen.

  3. I just disagree with your entire premise.

    This here: “The same keyboard on a larger screen, whether still small or scaled up, wouldn’t work nearly as well. The biggest problem would be holding the tablet and typing at the same time. If the form factor is anything like most suspect it will be, the weight and balance of the tablet would make such input impossible, requiring users to instead hold it with one hand and hunt-and-peck to type with the other.”

    Is far from certain and a complete assumption on your part. Until we see the actual device, we have no way of knowing how heavy it will be or what size it is.

    Furthermore, if the screen is 10″ or so diagonally as most seem to think, then the tablet could be as small as a trade paperback (6″ x9″). Pick up any book of that size and unless you have very small hands you will see that you can thumb-type very easily on it in portrait mode.

    Until we see otherwise, it seems the safest assumption is typing in portrait mode and landscape mode in the exact same way as on an iPhone with a virtual keyboard.

  4. Interesting speculations. But the rumours tell us to expect to be surprised by a new input method.
    Suppose there were three touch areas on the rear – on left and right sides, six in total. Each one large enough to avoid any mishits Then you can have a finger permutation keyboard in the bottom half of each side of the front, with as few as 4 or less keys on each side for activation by your thumbs. By combining one or more fingers on the rear surface with one or more thumbs on the front surface, you could have what……4 (FR) x 4 (FL) x 3 (BR) x 3 (BL) = 144 key combinations. More than enough for ASCII and more. (F=Front, B=Back, L=Left and R=Right). Surprising. Steep learning curve. But, once learned, infinitely superior and easier to use than QWERTY or any other traditional variant. I think 5 + 5 on the front and 3 + 3 on the rear would work too, producing 225 combinations but making it easier to arrange the numbers 0 to 9 on the front as super-shift key options when the appropriate pads on the rear surace were pressed simultaneously.
    Who knows?
    This is all the idle speculation I have time for.

  5. If anyone honestly believes that the tablet will be a “scaled-up iPod Touch”, they don’t know Apple.

  6. iPhone and Tablet moving to Verizon- AT&T left behind.|Tasty Slate Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    [...] be looking at a price well above 1K and the rumors are more and more clear that the Slate or Tablet will ship with a dock that transforms it into a desktop computer, complete with mouse and keyboard. Hopefully wireless on the latter. Check out this forecast from [...]

  7. “If the form factor is anything like most suspect it will be, the weight and balance of the tablet would make such input impossible, requiring users to instead hold it with one hand and hunt-and-peck to type with the other.”

    Huh. You mean, exactly as I use my iPhone now? No problems here. I prefer to use my fingers versus my thumbs. Perhaps because I’m a guitarist… but I can’t be the only one.

  8. I think there will be an input option on the back so that when you hold it yr fingers will be able touch panels on the left and right as an input interface. Patently Apple has some details on this

  9. Does anybody remember that Apple makes wireless keyboards?

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