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 highly accurate voice recognition—but tablet PCs have had none of these to date. On the output/display side, pen and gesture-based interfaces allow users to interact with data in all sorts of interesting new ways, yet Microsoft never fully explored these possibilities, settling instead for an operating system (Windows) that had been designed for use with a mouse. Above all, there’s the cost issue: most tablet PCs have been priced in the same league with premium laptops, which is a real show-stopper, given that most tablets are less powerful and harder to use than standard PCs.

Second, there is now strong proof that the input/output problems plaguing tablets in the past can be solved. That proof is the iPhone. The phone’s virtual keyboard works well, at least for entering short stretches of text such as search keywords, Tweets, or brief e-mails. The device supports high-accuracy voice recognition, as apps from companies like Google and Cambridge, MA-based Vlingo demonstrate. And most importantly, Apple has finally figured out what touchscreens are really good for. The iPhone OS was designed from the ground up to support now-familiar gestures like flicking with one finger to move content around the screen or spreading and pinching with two fingers to zoom in or out on a photo or web page. Apple’s Cocoa Touch application programming interface makes it easy for developers to build apps around such gestures.

These developers have built so many amazing iPhone apps (with some of the coolest ones coming, ironically, from Microsoft—witness Photosynth and Seadragon) that you can’t help salivating over what they might create if they had more screen real estate to work with. (An iSlate with a 10.5-inch screen would have seven times as much touchable surface area as the iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen, according to calculations by Apple news site iLounge.) As Blickenstorfer opined to the New York Times, “The sole reason for the renewed interest [in tablet computing] is that with the iPhone, Apple has shown that touch can work elegantly, effortlessly and beautifully.”

But I believe there’s also a third force at work here, separate from all of the specific workings of tablet interfaces. The astonishing versatility of the iPhone—which is a cell phone, a media player, a Web terminal, an e-mail and instant messaging device, a camera, a GPS navigator, an e-reader, an audio recorder, a game pad, a remote control, a drawing pad, and much more—has awakened consumers to the idea that a computer that goes out into the world with you can be much more powerful than a computer that just sits on your lap or on your desk, even if it doesn’t pack quite as many gigahertz of processing speed or megabits per second of connectivity.

The big picture is that the applications of computing have gone way beyond basic number-crunching to encompass everyday communications—including both data presentation (e.g., YouTube) and data capture and manipulation (e.g., camera phones). A device that you can take with you everywhere, and that can both supply you with content on demand and help you create and publish new content, can be a huge boon to personal learning and creativity. It can make you into a universal student, an expert navigator, a 24/7 social networker, or a walking video/podcasting studio.

But today’s tablet PCs aren’t really portable enough to take everywhere. Most of them are laptop-sized and weigh several pounds at a minimum. And the iPhone, as smart as it is, is still just a phone. The small size of its screen limits the amount of data that you can see or manipulate at any one time.

We need something in between: a device that is small and light enough to take anywhere, but has a screen big enough to let you edit a complex video, watch a high-definition movie, view a whole book or magazine page, or paint on a virtual canvas—and, ideally, use multiple applications at once.

Right now, that sweet spot is still empty. It’s as if there’s a black hole there, exerting a huge gravitational pull on our imaginations. And that’s the hole where consumers hope the Apple iSlate will fit.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a brief closing detour into the world of that key cultural touchstone, Star Trek. On the U.S.S. Enterprise, there are only three kinds of computing devices. On the big end of the size scale, there’s the ship’s computer, which has a huge, immobile core hidden somewhere deep inside the vessel, and which interacts with crew members primarily through spoken conversation. On the other end, there are the mobile devices: tricorders—scientific sensing-recording devices used mainly on away missions—and PADDs or “personal access display devices,” used aboard ship as portable reading devices or clipboards. Captain Picard’s desk, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, was usually cluttered with several of these gadgets.

You don’t see anything in between these extremes: no desktops PCs, no laptops. I think that’s because the Star Trek writers were on to something important—a truth that’s only now becoming evident in real life. (Chalk up one more accurate prediction to Roddenberry and company.) It’s that big, important number-crunching jobs like aiming the photon torpedoes or predicting the weather on Titan are best assigned to invisible, far-away computing resources: the ship’s computer, or what we call “the cloud” in today’s world. More personal communications tasks, like reading the crew manifest or composing an e-mail to Starfleet or editing a photo from your shore leave on Rigel, take far less computing power and can be handled locally, on mobile devices.

In our world, the number of jobs that can’t be accomplished in one of these two ways—in other words, the number of tasks where you truly need a desktop or a laptop PC—is rapidly dwindling. I’ve been an iPhone convert since the beginning because I see the device as a step toward the universal mobile computing device—part tricorder, part PADD—that I think most people will be carrying around (and using as their main computer) a decade or two from now. Unless all of the prognosticators are wrong, the iSlate will be even closer to this vision.

At this point, of course, it’s easy to project almost any hope or dream you want onto the rumored Apple project. As John Murrell pointed out at this week, the Apple tablet is “still unseen and therefore perfect,” while other entries in the tablet category—such as the Windows 7-powered Hewlett-Packard slate that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off at the Consumer Electronics Show on Wednesday—must contend with the harsh light of reality. But we only have to wait a few more weeks to find out what the future really looks like to Apple.

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

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