iTablet: Can Apple Succeed Where So Many Others Have Failed?

23 Comments

Source: Piper Jaffray

InfoWorld’s Randall C. Kennedy thinks not. Sounding a sour note about Apple’s (s aapl) anticipated tablet plans, InfoWorld’s Randall C. Kennedy says that even clever engineering can’t overcome fundamental limitations of tablet computing,

“Tablet PCs suck,” says Kennedy, categorically, elaborating that tablets are underpowered, only marginally portable, and awkward to use in anything but a traditional seated position at a desk or table.

Fundamental Realities

Kennedy observes that Microsoft (s msft) and various PC makers have been trying for years to create market traction for the tablet computing experience,  and have failed miserably. He contends that to believe Apple can somehow succeed where all others have failed is to ignore some fundamental realities of tablet computing.

“The lap doesn’t work as a desk,” declares Kennedy, especially if you’re in motion on a train or aircraft, and he suggests that typing on the anticipated onscreen keyboard would quickly degenerate into an exercise of hit or miss.

The Problem With Touchscreens

I work with clipboards a lot, and still do a lot of my composing longhand with pen and paper before using MacSpeech Dictate to enter it as computer text, but he’s got a point about touchscreen keyboards, which I personally revile. As he notes, with a real laptop keyboard the user’s lap and palms act as stabilizing influences and the positive tactile feedback of electromechanical keyswitches is a distinct advantage when working in mobile environments.

Personally, I would prefer to see the iTablet feature some sort of slide-out keyboard of the sort used by various smartphone designs, but given Apple’s stubbornness about such things, I join with Kennedy in doubting that’s very likely. However, I would council Cupertino (not that they’re likely to put much stock in my advice) to at minimum incorporate Bluetooth and/or USB RF input device support.

“Prehistoric World Of Dragging And Scratching”

As for pen-based or stylus input, Kennedy says he types a lot faster than he can write with pen and paper. Me too, but I often think better with pen in hand, so I don’t agree that the “prehistoric world of dragging and scratching” with a traditional writing instrument is hopelessly anachronistic. On the other hand, a tablet screen is not nearly texturally satisfying as paper, and again I have to agree that entering serious quantities of data with an onscreen keyboard or stylus will soon get tedious.

Possible workaround: voice input. If the iTablet turns out to be a full-fledged Mac, it should support Dictate, which is amazingly accurate once you get it trained. Even the mediocrities of touchscreen would be made more tolerable in most environments, though not in trains and other shared spaces.

The Netbook Factor

However, Kennedy suggests the biggest obstacle to iTablet success is the increasingly ubiquitous netbook. Some newer examples incorporate the advantages of conventional notebooks, especially near full-sized keyboards, and Kennedy contends that compared to an iTablet, devices equipped with these advantages simply make more sense to consumers.

He may be right. I’m a tablet skeptic too, although I’m open to persuasion, and it’s a fool’s game second-guessing Apple’s prowess at product direction choices. Lots of folks predicted failure for the iPod, iPhone and iTunes as well.

What do you think? Will the iTablet prove the skeptics mistaken again?

23 Comments

Sky

I think Kennedy’s opinions are valid only in the context of an iTablet (or any tablet) trying to replace a laptop. As he describes his applications for such a device, he goes straight to traditional document creation and tedious data entry.

Kennedy’s applications are a perfect fit for a laptop, so it’s no surprise that he is not a tablet cheerleader. However, in a world of rapid real-time communication, augmented reality, citizen journalism and 140-character tweets, Kennedy’s computing applications are increasingly “1990s”.

If Apple got it right, its tablet will respond to emerging digital communication trends as vigorously as it helps define them. We’ve left the world of computers as processors, and are now in the new world of computers as communicators. In my opinion, this is what tablets and smartphones are ultimately about.

Guy Dye

I am a recent Mac convert at home, so I am beginning to “get it”.

I have seen and spoken with a few of the ‘Mac Faithful’ as I reach out for advice on what software to run and how to do specific things with my Mac.

With that said, I truly believe that Apple could put dog feces inside of an aluminum platter no more than an inch thick, put a USB port on it, call it iScent and a million people would line up to buy it.

So Apple turning any netbook product into a fiscal success story is, at this point, a foregone conclusion.

AlfieJr

as others note, this post’s assumption that a leading rationale for an Apple tablet is text entry is simply wrong. and thus using that as a criteria to assess its potential is also simply wrong. if working with text is your top priority, Apple wants to sell you a MacBook.

but except for students and work-oriented professionals, the rest of us consumers do little text entry beyond email etc. communication, media, and web are by far our first priorities. and then all those specialized purposes that single purpose apps are now addressing so well. oh, plus games for many. a tablet will do a much better job of media, web, and games than the iPhone/touch can simply because of its much larger display.

add to that a more powerful processor, battery, RAM, etc. and the tablet can also run apps that the iPhone/touch cannot. for example, an app-ized version of iMovie that would come in very handy while traveling (and GarageBand, Keynote, et al). it might even allow multi-tasking!

the question of ergonomics is important. i expect a little ‘kickstand’ that can fold out to angle the tablet on a flat surface for better viewing. as to hand-holding, i expect third party accessories to be offered that make it easy to hold with a single hand. everyone overlooks the importance of accessories.

finally, the other big question is how much Apple integrates the tablet (and the iPhone/touch) with your home system. right now is it all focused on your Mac/PC via iTunes. but it could also be connected directly to your HDTV via AppleTV. that would be huge. too much to hope for probably.

add all that up, there is a huge market for such a device. not you maybe, but millions of us consumers.

abu

this.

For data entry, there is only one purpose where a tablet form factor works better than a screen + keyboard one.
It’s jotting notes and sketching. Which means, if Apple provides proper hardware (stylus recognition besides multitouch), and proper software (note taking, sketching and diagrams) is developed by them or third party, the tablet will be a great tool for people attending lessons, meetings and briefings.

Besides that, the tablet form factor is for consuming content, playing games and manipulating (consumer grade) media.

IMHO a paperback sized surface is much better for reading and browsing than a notebook or a netbook. Ditto for casual gaming and for iPhoto/iMovie style media editing.

Finally… “everyone overlooks the importance of accessories” – that’s spot on.

Think about the paper organizers people have in their bags. Someone has a slim plain notebook, some other a leather book with pens and card filers inside… the same for a tablet, you could carry it along barebones, or in a case, say, with a stand and a small bluetooth keyboard… the possibilities are endless if Apple provides good third party hardware expansion.

mark

Although input will likely be an important secondary function, it is still a necessity, just like it is on an iPhone/iPod touch. So Apple must handle it well on any tablet.

On a 5″ screen, two-hand touch typing on a virtual keyboard will be fine. On a 7″, people with long thumbs can do two-thumb typing; everyone else would be down to one finger or they’d have to put it down on a lap or table. The viewing angle will still be okay, people will tilt their heads downward more – only a bit more than they would for reading a book or using a DS/PSP.

I think Apple will be turning more to voice input. Via the iPod/iPhone, people have been well-trained to use headphones (instead of speakers) anyway for audio output in public spaces, so a mic is not really so strange. Apple has already added Voiceover (which doesn’t work that well), but possibly they’ve improved it enough so that it can be usable for input. Apple has often tried things out on an earlier product. In any case, Dragon Dictation and Search apps works rather well on the iPhone 3GS without any training, so the processing power and algorithms are close to ready.

That said, however, note that people have largely turned to texting/SMS and avoiding voice input/output in many contexts. So this is a barrier that Apple will need to cross if it’s pushing people back to voice/audio.

Yacko

“InfoWorld Kennedy’s thinking is limited by previous tablets running the Windows OS that he’s seen and used. …an Apple slate computer … will have “surprising” input features”

Exactly. Most previous Windows tablets have a resistive screen, a stylus and multiple levels of pressure sensitivity. Good for artists and writers using the stylus. The Apple tablet will have a capacitive touch screen, likely no stylus and handwriting recognition, and is probably meant for consumers to view and manipulate content with perhaps some annotation. Two very different animals.

filecat13

There’s a reason–actually many reasons–why Apple has billions in the bank and pundits do not. Apple reaps billions in profits by creating products and markets that people want to experience. Pundits collect paychecks for generating clicks for vanity pieces in which they pretend they have any credibility for pushing their hare-brained opinions out as representing what the market/consumer will or will not bear.

By vanity piece, I’m referring to the constant “I think,” “I wouldn’t,” “I doubt,” I predict,” and “I prefer” sentences in which the author imagines his numbskull judgment reflects any sort of truth or genuine comprehension of the subject at hand. I love to click through and support these guys, because if they’re not doing this, heaven help us if they get real jobs.

Let’s let Apple, Microsoft, and Google do the research, take the risks, and reap the rewards, and these ‘net pundits can continue to live in fantasy for the entertainment of us all.

Brett

It is annoying to hear people judge a tablet when they have never used one before…

Ictus75

No one believed in the iphone before if came out and redefined our phone experience. Now look at all the copies and companies trying to catch up. No one really knows what Apple has up its sleeve with a tablet, and we won’t know until it is revealed. Apple has a way of being 3-5 steps ahead of the writers who blog their best guesses. My bets are on Apple, NOT the critics who are just taking pot shots in the dark.

Alex

Chill Out, I am a mac evangelist ever since i got my first mac in 1994 but it all comes down to tastes I personally don’t find a practical use for a tablet. Apple always delivers and wow all of us and I hope it is the case. But it’s the same thing for people who like netbooks but for me they are not functional. just the same way i can like anchovies on my pizza and you might not that doesn’t make you stupid or crazy it makes you DIFFERENT.

iphonerulez

It is likely Apple will succeed where others failed because those other tablets didn’t have iTunes with an App Store. The other tablets failed through lack of media content. Apple also will have focused retail sales going for them. Apple has a number of advantages going for them to keep sales moving.

The greatest stumbling block for the Apple tablet will be the cheapsters griping about having to pay higher Apple prices. The cheapsters will just have to wait for Google’s partners to produce bargain-priced Android-powered tablet devices. The Android tablet experience will be somewhat watered down since they won’t have as much ready content and the Android ecosystem is still wobbly. However, if the Apple tablet is relatively successful, the tablet market will be totally flooded with Android-powered tablet knockoffs.

wonkette

I was waiting to hear more about this Apple tablet but I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I recently upgraded from an Apple PowerBook to a Windows-based tablet PC; so far it has been a great experience. The similarities between OSX and Windows Vista are enough that I can navigate and use features in Vista that I am accustomed to in Snow Leopard. My productivity has increased dramatically as well. My next step is to upgrade to Windows 7.

Alex

I agree to acertain point, but Dictation only works if no one else is speaking you wont really get much work done on the subway with 150 other people speaking.

HD Boy

InfoWorld Kennedy’s thinking is limited by previous tablets running the Windows OS that he’s seen and used. Undoubtedly, Steve Jobs and company have a reputation for introducing new ideas and paradigms with new Apple products. I have no doubt that an Apple slate computer running OS X Mobile will be different — and significantly better — than all previous tablets that have been brought to market buy other vendors. It will have “surprising” input features and change people’s perceptions about tablet computers.

AJ

I can only think of it as being useful as an e-reader that I can hold in front of me. With no upright screen if I’m using it to watch a film or go on the Internet then I’m either going to finish up with aching arms (from holding it between lap and face level) or a bent neck and back (from looking down on it on my lap). It’s going to be imposssible to do anything productive with it. The MacBook Air just isn’t enough to compete in the netbook space – iSlate may create a entirely new niche but there is a big wide open hole where a netbook should be. It just doesn’t make any sense not having a product in that area.

kirasaw

Apple will not release a netbook. Why you ask? Because Apple maintains an approximately 30 to 35 percent margin on it products. Netbooks have no where near that. Apple would rather sell 1 millions high quality products at their normal margin than 20 million cheapo netbooks at slim margins. Take a look at Apple’s cash balance and you will see quality over quantity pays better. Apple sells a fraction of the phones that Nokia does yet makes a higher profit, and that is not just profit per phone but total profit. all those cheap phones gets Nokia the number one handset award but does nothing for the bottom line.

AJ

Reply to kirasaw (below)

I ask because I like Apple hardware but I am also on the road alot and would like to have some truly portable Apple hardware. The MacBook Air is great on weight but it’s still 13 inch and doesn’t cut it on size.

Your argument about margins is spot on but they would not be entering that segment because of profitability, they would be doing so to complete their range which has a hole in it. The notebook is no longer first choice for portable computer and in alot of cases is substituting the desktop PC. From Apple’s point of view it should make no sense that I should have a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPod… and a Vaio netbook. Why let me buy Sony when $700 – $900 I would spend with my eyes shut on a 8-10 inch MacBook Air?? Even if the margin is tighter I’m sure they could do it without being lossmaking and prevent unnecessary sales going to competitors – there is no sense that the segment is entirely left to the competition.

Joel Reingold

The tablet will have a stylus.

The tablet will have handwriting recognition. (old and proven technology)

No more paper and pens for Randall!!!!!

No more paper and pens for MattF.

Stylus! — Handwriting recognition!!!!!!

The tablet will rock!!!

paul

I think that the tablet is conceived for entertainement. In this scenario the problem of the keyboard is relative. Voice recognition for me is the next interaction mode. Today in the iPhone you can see a very well done implementation: Voice Control. Probably the NeXT iteration of iPhone OS extended this functionality all top.

thanks for the article

paul

MattF

I agree with Kennedy– the basic tablet form factor is an ergonomic nightmare. If you’re holding it so that you can type on it, you can’t see the screen, and vice versa. I suppose it’s possible that this problem is dealt with in some way– but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Alex

I know and how can you hold it in one hand and type with the other? one handed typing? will they redesign the keyboard layout? obviously tablets are for point and click applications only no typing only draging clicking etc.

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