Apple Tablet Rumors: Could It Change the World?

I know, I know, I’m sorry. Yet another tablet rumor report. This time, however, there’s more meat to it, and Business Week’s Peter Burrows is so confident in information coming from sources close to its development he’s now “convinced.”

OK, so what? Some people were convinced all the way back in 2003. But at that time, there was far less to go on than we supposedly have today.

Burrows doesn’t name his source, only describing his mystery informer as someone “familiar with Apple’s product plans” who says the company expects to introduce a tablet-based device early next year. Nothing new there, right? We’ve heard that rumor already. But Burrows’ confidence in those claims is bolstered by a report from Piper Jaffray senior analyst Gene Munster, who writes:

Between indications from our component contacts in Asia, recent patents…relating to multi-touch sensitivity for more complex computing devices, comments from Tim Cook on the April 22 conference call, and Apple’s acquisition of P.A. Semi along with other recent chip-related hires, it is increasingly clear that Apple is investing more in its mobile computing franchise.

Specifically, we expect this to result in a larger (7”-10”) touchscreen tablet that will launch in 1H CY10. Additionally, Apple’s consistent message that it refuses to launch a “cheap” portable netbook, and its desire to differentiate itself in a maturing market before it’s too late (similar to the timing of iPod and iPhone), plus its gradual addition of multi-touch technology to all of its core products (iPhones, iPods and Macs) leads us to conclude this product will be a touchscreen tablet (not a netbook).

Certainly sounds convincing, right? It does to Burrows, who adds:

All the talk of midsized devices that are smaller than a laptop and larger than a cell phone strike me as wishful thinking by vendors. But who really needs one, and for what? I know I don’t.

Good point — at this stage, it’s somewhat unclear where the demand for this device will come from. We can only speculate. Sure, it’s easy to talk about instances where such a form factor, married with an iPhone-flavored Mac OS X platform, will be well-received. Hospitals, schools and universities are obvious candidates. But I’m reminded of the heady days of 2002 when there was tremendous buzz around tablet PCs. Sure, they were underpowered things, but they were useful. I carried one with me around the world, and although it died quite spectacularly two years ago, I still miss it. But it seems only the tech-enthusiast and geek crowds really embraced them.

Tall Order

Can Apple engineer the “right” mix of hardware, software and clever marketing to get tablet devices in the hands of the masses? It seems like a tall order, but remember that before the ubiquity of the iPod, portable digital music players were popular only in Japan (and some of the LAN parties I attended at college).

It’s a formidable challenge, convincing the world it needs a tablet device. It won’t be easy, particularly in light of the tablet PC’s apparent failure to make significant inroads in either the business or domestic markets. But I’m convinced, for a number of reasons, the tablet computer is not only needed, it’s inevitable.

Yesterday I had to quickly jot down a telephone number. I scrabbled around for some spare paper (not easy to find since my recent efforts at going paperless!) and then I had to find a (working) pen. Finally, I had to put pen to paper…and good grief did it feel odd! And not only odd — it felt foreign to me, awkward, almost as though I’d forgotten how to write! The notion that I was scratching out pigment-stained channels on dried, flattened wood-pulp struck me as not only old-fashioned, but, frankly, primitive!

Turns out I haven’t used an actual pen-plus-paper for a very long time. Not for letter writing, not for simple note-taking, not even for adding my signature to anything. A digital signature serves me well enough for correspondence, while Chip & PIN means my signature isn’t required in the shops any more!

It’s second nature for me to fire up TextEdit on a Mac (or Notes on my iPhone) and just start typing. It’s faster and easier than putting pen to paper. Yes, I’m a geek, and most people my age aren’t quite so committed to using computers the way I am. But my awkwardness with a pen surely isn’t a geek-only experience. Consider schoolchildren, for whom credit is earned ever more these days for their willingness and ability to leverage the tools common to most domestic personal computers; proficiency with DTP, content-creation/publishing, and communication tools are considered an essential part of standard education.

To put it into perspective, when I was in high school in the early ’90s, I earned special credit if I managed to type out the occasional essay. When my sister was leaving the same high school just three years later, she lost credit if she hand-wrote anything. Today, I have nieces in high school who are not allowed to submit homework on paper, but must instead email completed assignments to their teachers.

Modern schools fiercely committed to IT competence, combined with an ever-growing environmental conscientiousness, will surely mean that, in years to come, the geeky dedication people like me have to our personal computing lifestyles will be a run-of-the-mill “standard” for younger generations. In that (near) future, the ever-present tablet-style device we’ve seen only on “Star Trek” will be as common, affordable and crucial as cell phones are now.

Tablet PCs have promised that world, but were such underpowered and under-developed platforms they never really had a chance. Maybe Apple can do for tablets what it did for portable MP3 players. And if these reports are accurate, we won’t have too long a wait to find out.

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