The din of rumor and the clamor of speculation inspired by Apple’s expected announcement is about to peak. We’re all convinced this tomorrow…

Gizmodo's Mock-Up Of The Apple Tablet
photo: Gizmodo

The din of rumor and the clamor of speculation inspired by Apple’s expected announcement is about to peak. We’re all convinced this tomorrow’s “one other thing” will be some kind of magical tablet device. We all expect it will be a big deal. And in these past weeks we’ve witnessed a parade of writers, analysts, and consumers who have all published their “wish” or even “guess” (or, in some cases, “fantasy”) lists. But we have yet to see what we think really matters: an Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) “should” list that identifies the things Apple needs to do to ensure that its device is successful.

Let’s put this on the record: Apple has to create a new category here — that’s something it has not done in more than two decades. Apple’s genius is its ability to consumerize a device category through great design, software and marketing. It did it with the PC, the digital music player, and the [shudder] smartphone. The coming tablet is an oddity. It is flawed in meaningful ways: It’s a computer without a keyboard, it’s a digital reader with poor battery life and a high price tag, and it’s a portable media player that can’t fit in a pocket.

As a result, Apple has to tap the 6 million people who will buy e-readers this year and/or the 7% of adults interested in buying a netbook and help them see that this new tablet is a new version of all of those things and more, where its value comes from their elegant integration into a single, awesome user experience. This is something we think Apple can do, but only if it puts the right objectives on its to-do list. We’re not rooting for Apple per se, except to the extent that Apple: 1) improves consumers’ lives, and 2) cleverly exploits market opportunities or gaps to force everyone else to elevate their game. (Note that #2 will lead to more of #1; this is a fruit of free-market economics, and we are eager to taste it.)

So into the vast cacophony of opinion that is about to get turned up past 11 (apologies to Spinal Tap), we offer the following three things we think Apple should do with its announcement tomorrow. Accompanying this recommendation is a warning: if Apple doesn’t do these things, or do them well, the long-lauded tablet form factor will remain a peculiarity.

1. Create a new device category around personal media. Today, people spend as much as five or six hours a day with media (most of it video, next with audio, then with text — younger consumers spend as much as seven hours a day on media, including social media, much of it overlapping with other media). Nowhere do they have an integrated experience that ties it all together. Of course, Apple knows it is well positioned to offer music, video, and, soon, books, magazines, newspapers and web-based opinion and commentary. However, the critical link that would make Apple’s tablet really soar is the inclusion of personal media: photos and home videos. Viewing photos is a top-five online activity, digital photography has created a whole new set of behaviors that Flickr, Picasa and others have tried to serve.

Now with the rise of Flip cameras, video is about to achieve the same prominence, but no one has a handle on it yet because it’s harder to edit, manage and share. Putting all of these personal and professional media into the device and synchronizing them intelligently across other devices with the help of the dreaded “cloud,” that’s where Apple can take it all to the next level. Importantly, personal media are by definition social media because they have to be shared to be valued. Apple needs some to do work here — social media has not been a strength. Nail this combination of professional, personal and social media, and a new device category is born.

2. Work its user-experience magic on connectivity. Among the most hotly debated questions about the tablet is what flavor of connectivity it will possess, which mobile operator(s) may play a role, and what that role may be. Today’s 3G networks simply cannot support a Kindle-like pricing model (that wraps the delivery cost into the content price) for video, nor for a concept like the rich magazine that Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) has demonstrated. To accommodate the full panoply of media offerings, Apple will need to rely on a combination of home broadband, WiFi, and cellular networks to seamlessly deliver and synchronize content using a complex model that optimizes based on cost, urgency and price.

This network dance is already visible to iPhone owners who know they can only retrieve certain content over WiFi or when physically connected to their iTunes library, but it’s a clumsy dance and Apple can — and should — do better. Here’s an idea: become a Virtual Network Operator (VNO, providing connectivity services without physically operating a network)…a smart VNO. Put a multimode radio into the tablet, negotiate wholesale rates with AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (and others in the future), and do arbitrage pricing across networks to reduce pricing using market efficiencies. Sure, the carriers don’t want this but if anyone can do it, Apple can. After all, you’ll already have all the other retail and service components in place.

3. Break open the meaning of the word “device.” All along, we’ve talked about this device as if it were a single form factor that would define a new era in media use and connectivity. But the future of selling devices is not in selling single devices; instead, it lies in selling device-based experiences, where families of devices work together to give consumers what they really want. That means the tablet must be introduced with a family of co-devices (not accessories, please don’t marginalize them by calling them that) that will make the device itself more flexible and therefore valuable. We’re talking Bluetooth keyboards, sure, but also a family of docks that position the tablet to be a bedside alarm clock, a bedroom Pandora radio player, a kitchen recipe stand, a family-room photo frame, and a home remote control. We’re talking about TVs that tablets can “publish to” wirelessly and HD cameras that can function in attached mode or work wirelessly from across the room — the same camera that will speak to your Mac, your iPhone, and anything else Apple makes.

There’s a lot more detail behind it, but this is our short “should” list for Apple. A list that, conveniently, applies to everyone who wants to take on or draft off of Apple as well. Amazon’s next generation Kindle should do the same (we’ve codenamed it “Kindle Flame” around here). We’ll be publishing a much more detailed analysis of the tablet market in the coming weeks once we have the full detail of Apple’s offering and can scour our consumer data for evidence of who wants — and can pay for — this kind of experience.

Charles Golvin and James McQuivey are analysts at Forrester Research, where they serve, and contribute to the Forrester blog for Consumer Product Strategy professionals.

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This article originally appeared in Forrester Research.

  1. Will there be any features for using the tablet as a work computer? An office suite etc. for making presentations, documents. It would be one of the biggest markets and would entice a lot of windows buyers esp. students, digital media professionals if they could use their computers in classes, workspaces etc. to take notes, make presentations etc using multitouch/stylus capabilities.

  2. Why does this thing need to be a “personal entertainment device”. Personally I’m not intested in another e-reader/MP3 player/portable video device.

    What I would like to see is a real computer with a useable touchcreen/pen-based interface.

    I can’t see myself dropping $1,000 on a big-screen iPod Touch…

  3. realisticexpectations Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    “And it should cure cancer, end bigotry and bring about a lasting world peace.”

  4. “Apple hasn’t created a new category in twenty years,

    One wonders where the writer of the article above was for twenty years.
    Let’s see, there’s the iPhone, the Touch, iTunes, iLife and iWork are categories, there’s the all in one iMac too, the superthin Air, TIme Capsule, iPod. I could go on. These are all categories that other companies are doing their best to imitate. But as soon as they get close to catching up, they are left behind again.

    So, is Jobs a clairvoyant?

    No, he just looks – in the real world. He sees what people want and what they are looking for. He supplies it. Gates could never do this, he was so far into his own introspective world and Ballmer wouldn’t see a brick wall if it was announced with trumpets.

    Methinks the writer of this article has something of the same too.

    Just open your eyes and look. See what people want and give it to them. It’s really not difficult.

  5. @Brian C

    I think what you’re looking for already exists in the numerous tablet computers available running Windows 7. Apple doesn’t seem to be interested in this category — which so far hasn’t caught on with consumers. Their vision is for connected, mobile, media-centric, power efficient computers rather than to modify legacy computers into a new form factor. However, shortly there will be several Windows 7 tablets like the existing Archos which will have form factors similar to Apple’s slate. If the current tablets don’t suit your needs, the new ones might.

  6. This is not a new category. Apple is only doing (potentially) what they did with the iPhone and other devices:They are potentially introducing a product that fits in an existing category but that does it in a way that people will actually use.The only reason everyone is blowing this out of proportion and making silly statements like “Apple hasn’t created a new category in twenty years” is because it’s Apple and everyone gets stupid when Apple is involved. You can’t have a tablet computer creating a new category when there’s already too many existing tablet computers to count.

  7. I have no idea how an analyst who is making fun of other users wishlists can then state for the record:

    “The coming tablet is an oddity. It is flawed in meaningful ways: It’s a computer without a keyboard, it’s a digital reader with poor battery life and a high price tag, and it’s a portable media player that can’t fit in a pocket.”

    I stopped reading at this point… Back in line behind the rest of the masturbation. Tomorrow you get to talk.

  8. I think that battery life is going to be the biggest make-or-break issue here.
    If Apple has some how managed to give the tablet a color screen AND battery life that can be comparable to Kindle/Nook etc. Then, I think it’s fair-well, good night, ya had a nice run & see ya on Ebay for Kindle & Co.

    Apple might has some sick tech in their new tablet but it means nothing if the battery needs to be recharged (changed?) every 30 minutes (knowing apple swappable batteries is not in question.)

    Another make or break that falls into the battery life category is; assuming that Apple wants to push this thing to Schools and Uni’s for textbooks it has to have good battery life, would be a total failure if you had your class failing because their islates died halfway threw class.

  9. I think it’s a given that the iPad/whatever will be a real media powerhouse, and probably a competitive e-reader, a la Kindle. But I agree with the first poster (‘anonymous’), without some business or education-related capabilities it’s really a glorified iTouch, even if the UI is stellar and introduces innovative ways to interact with the device (eg, over-the-top multi-touch, pressure-sensitive sides or back-panel, who knows). I, for one, would like to see some kind of hybrid iTouch/Microsoft Courier, with it’s dual displays and foldable, book-like form factor. Wouldn’t it be a kick if Apple’s tablet actually folded and could work as one display surface or two? Now that would be way cool. If you’re not familiar with the Courier concept, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmIgNfp-MdI. If Apple chooses to focus on media and consumer use, the there probably will be room for another player, like the Courier, that addresses the business and education market.

  10. wow, suddenly everybody seems like a tech entrepreneur… lol I am sure Steve Jobs – entrepreneur of the decade, will consider your advice carefully….. hahaha

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