Blog Post

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.

8 Responses to “Apple Tablet Rumors: Could It Change the World?”

  1. Tablet in pharma

    I’m not sure if anyone has thought of a device that can survive the harsh environment of cleanroom manufacturing areas for drugs, medical devices, surgical rooms, etc where ethanol and other cleaning solutions would be required to make the device ‘sterile’. I would be very interested in a device that can be utilized in these areas to eliminate paper ‘contamination’ and be able to have mobile information capture without having to have a designated pc station. It sound to me like this might be a start. Does anyone know if the tablet can be ‘sealed’ and still used?

  2. TheApe

    Whatever the Apple iTablet is, it must be:

    – Light. 300 g or so.
    – Pocketable.
    – Capable of opening (and ideally editing) Apple Keynote and Microsoft PowerPoint NATIVE files for the ultimate computerless full-blown videopresentations.

    Here is an order of thousands for our University.

  3. spencercal

    @Jimmy G – Well Sorry then for misjudging your comments, and for sounding condescending. You are right about the stylus, the touchscreen wasn’t built with stylus input in mind, but at least we know that they can be made for that type of a screen (I think apple could easily offer a much improved version of one, especially when the tablet is released.) For the most part I think using your fingers will be the fastest and easiest option, but when it comes to drawing and writing (not typing), a stylus would be much more accurate.

    I do have to say I am also very interested to see how apple will merge hardware and software to come up with a product like no other. Many people are saying that tablets have been made, and that they are not all that productive or easy to use. That there won’t be many people that will even want one. I agree, anything that I have used up till now has been very poorly implemented. Not too long ago I played with a recent samsung tablet and the experience was pitiful. It was slow, and a pain to navigate. I would take my iPod Touch any day over that thing. With that said, its my opinion that apple will be able to blow all other “tablets” out of the water when they finally do end up releasing this product. We all know how long Apple has been working on a tablet-like device, and I’m sure that they haven’t released anything since the Newton because they want to get it right this time. If that means that they have to wait until the right hardware and software can be produced, and until there is a demand large enough out there to deem it produceable, they will. Apple seems to have learned that its better to wait and get it right than just throw a product out there. (think they kinda relearned that one with Mobile Me)

    They had been developing the iPhone for more than 2 years when they released it, which is why (in my opinion) competitors have had a hard time matching it. They may not have had anything similar in their plans till they saw the success of the iPhone, and then started working on something similar. I’m sure that they are catching up, but Apple is still on the leading edge. They continue to kick out better products because they don’t copy the competition to succeed, they innovate. I’m sure that will be made clear whenever this thing really does come out, and for the sake of many of us waiting for one… Hopefully its sooner than later.

  4. RE: 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!

    A bit overdone, don’t you think? Sarah Bernhardt (?) couldn’t have done more emoting.

  5. @spencercal – I never intended to look like a guru, I was merely putting across some of my thoughts on the subject. I think your condescending tone is unnecessary when I was adding my own, largely correct, insight into the article.

    Despite the existence of stylus products, none are promoted by Apple, and the UI of the iPhone is not designed, let alone optimised for their use. The area of the average finger on screen equates to at least 5×5 pixels of contact which just doesn’t compare to the standard 1 pixel as given by a mouse and cursor.

    The interesting thing for me will be seeing how Apple works out the OS. Will apps be expected to have similar functionality to the iPhone or to the Mac? I expect Apple to utilise the already proven successful App Store model for developers to easily distribute apps, but will the tablet also be able to run iPhone apps too? Will it be running scaled down versions of Mac apps?

    It’s going to be interesting to see whether the tablet will be intended as a standalone device or as an accessory in the way that the iPhone syncs with iTunes. My feeling is it will still sync back to the computer, or perhaps have greater dependency on cloud storage, given the likely inclusion of a 3G chip for always on networking.

    The potential for the Apple tablet is immense, especially if they also challenge Amazon’s Kindle by selling books on the iTunes Store. It’s a device that will be market defining, and no one will call it a netbook.

  6. spencercal

    @Jimmy G Just thought I’d point out that your assumption that the iPhone only supports 2 finger gestures is incorrect. Yes, Apple only has used up to two finger gestures in their apps, but support for more is available. I have more than one iPhone game that recognizes three finger gestures. Obviously using more would be rather illogical due to the limited screen real estate and the average finger size. Screen size is the limitation here, not software capability buddy.

    Oh, and there are companies that already make “a pointing device more accurate than fingers” as you call it. There is more than one stylus out there that works perfectly on the iPhone. You’ve got some good points here, but it definitely shows that you don’t research all that much, but still want to come off looking like a guru.

    As for the device itself, I don’t think that it can be placed as a one size fits all thing. For the same reason Apple has 4 different iPod designs, so that everyone can find a product within the lineup that fits their needs. Now having more than one of these can be a solution for some. I have friends that own both a Touch and a Shuffle. A power device, and a small devise for things like exercise. I personally think that apple will do a good job of promoting this device in the same light when it comes to laptops. A large laptop is desired for the “power computing” but the tablet can do most of the work that the average person needs to do, while being small and convenient at the same time. This is especially true in times where it would be a hassle to pack a laptop around.

    I personally will be one of the people out there that will own a laptop, tablet, and an iPod. That way I can take the device that best suits my needs with me.

  7. I reckon if Apple eventually do release the almighty tablet it’s gonna be more than just a “large iPhone” as people keep describing it.

    I think there is still a big need for a pointing device more accurate than fingers – Apple are innovating here but nothing has been shown for it yet.

    I reckon the tablet device will feature some drastically improved Multi Touch technology – the iPhone currently supports up to 2 finger gestures, I think the tablet will recognise all 5 on one hand.

    However, I also have my suspicions that Apple might also incorporate the ability to use a pen / stylus with the tablet. Perhaps not just for handwriting recognition, because I’m quite used to and fond of the iPhone’s on screen keyboard, but for drawing. Many people, including myself still like to sketch ideas down on paper. All of the drawing apps on the iPhone, no matter how well made, are still limited by the fatness of people’s fingers.

    I would seriously consider spending money on a device that I could actually use for sketching in a digital format. I know this is not currently a massive market – Wacom make 2 touch screen tablet devices but are both priced over £1,000 which ensures they are strictly for pro illustrators. If Apple allowed the use of pen input it would be in addition to the already fantastic Multi Touch interface, and I’m sure Apple will wow us with what can suddenly be made possible with the addition of such an accurate pointing device combined.

    All in all, I’m looking forward to the tablet, and developing for it.