Tablet Fever: How Apple Could Go Where No Computer Maker Has Gone Before

After a steady crescendo over the last several years, the talk in the mediasphere about a new tablet computer from Apple has reached deafening proportions. With an actual product announcement now expected on January 27 (at least, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cites “sources in a position to know”), Apple may finally be on the verge of providing some official data to quell the many and oft-conflicting rumors.

I’m as curious as all of my tech-journalist colleagues about what Apple will reveal. And my inner gadget freak is impatient, too. Speaking purely with my consumer hat on, I’ve long been budgeting mentally for an “iSlate” purchase sometime in 2010. There’s only one company where I’d commit sight unseen, years in advance, to dropping a grand on the next new thing, and it’s Apple.

But what’s really been catching my interest, as we wait for news from the horse’s mouth, is the apparent strength of the market pull for Apple’s hypothetical tablet. Everybody, it seems, desperately wants the iSlate rumors to be true: bloggers, journalists, publishers, mobile application developers, generic geeks, and even average consumers. Indeed, the expectations have built up to such a pitch that if the January 27 event doesn’t materialize, or if it’s not about a tablet device, Apple’s PR team will have global-scale disappointment to deal with.

The details don’t seem to matter. Whether the device is called the iSlate or the iPad or the MacBook Touch; whether its screen measures 7 inches diagonally or 9 or 11; whether it costs $600 or $1,000; whether it’s primarily designed as an e-reader or a gaming pad or keyboardless netbook—most observers seem to agree that the Apple tablet will be über-cool, that the company will sell millions of units, and that 2010 will be the year of the tablet.

Whether or not you buy into that consensus (and I do, more or less, though there are also a few dissenters), you have to admit that all this enthusiasm is a little strange, given that the market has shown so little interest in tablet computers up to now.

Tablets are a very old idea—in fact, the first computer that can rightly be called a PC, Alan Kay’s 1968 Dynabook, was a tablet device. (The Dynabook concept evolved into the Xerox Alto, which inspired the Apple Lisa and the Apple Macintosh, which eventually spawned the Apple iPhone, which paved the way for the alleged iSlate—so in a way, personal computing is now coming full circle.) But it’s a product category that has never quite matched up with an identifiable consumer need.

Apple’s Newton was essentially a small tablet, and Steve Jobs himself killed the product in 1997 after disappointing sales and embarrassments over the device’s suboptimal handwriting recognition capabilities. Full PCs with touchscreens and pen interfaces have been on the market since 2001, when Microsoft introduced a tablet version of Windows, but they’ve never sold more than a few hundred thousand units a year, and have never caught on outside a few specialized habitats, such as hospitals, shipping and logistics operations, surveying and mapping, and the military.

So, what accounts for the dissonance here? Why are the same consumers who have been so apathetic about the tablet form-factor in the past suddenly so excited about a possible Apple version? I think there are several things going on.

First, as Pen Computing Magazine founder Conrad Blickenstorfer has pointed out, most of the tablets built to date have suffered from the same set of fatal drawbacks. On the input side, if you’re going to dispense with a physical keyboard, then you’d better have either perfect handwriting recognition, an efficient virtual keyboard, or … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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