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

1/8/10Follow @wroush

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 SiliconValley.com 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.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • Greg Zwick

    I would like to see a 11″ Mac Book Pro with a detachable 8.5×11 iSlate as the screen. The iSlate would have the 24×7 internet and phone capabilities and when attached to the mac book pro would add USB, HDMI, sound, and firewire ports, SD Card reader, blu-ray drive, keyboard and small area that mirrors the touchscreen (below the keyboard).

    They could still sell the iSlate separately.

    I would pay $2000 and $60/mo to replace my existing mac book pro in a heartbeat.

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  • Zac

    I would like the Apple tablet to be larger than 10in, maybe 13in.

    Having a desktop computer and a portable computer such as a laptop is overkill for most and adds complexity in their computing lives.

    I hope the Apple tablet can replace this laptop.

    And I also hope that the technology is available to make this product useful at a reasonable price point.

  • brian

    your analysis seems sound, and like you, i am simply eager to get one in my hands and see what they’ve been cooking up. but i do have two serious issues with the article:

    1. wtf is the mediasphere? we already have a word for people in the media.. we call them the media.. you don’t have to add “sphere” to it. this would be like discussing what’s going on in the governmentsphere, or the sciencesphere. “blogosphere” works because we didn’t already have a word for it.

    2. how much did you pay the 8 year old to make your article avatar? did he come up with the word art on his own, or did you provide him with some sort of template? magnifying glass? world wide wade? white drop shadow? puke green border around your randomly floating picture? you just don’t really expect to see such atrocious design like that these days. looks like it belongs on a geocities page circa ’94. grats on still having a job, though.

  • Hui,,,

    I think that we all secretly know that with current computers and O/S, except with products from Apple, that we are being ripped off in terms of quality.
    Nobody else is innovating.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @brian: Thanks for your comment.

    1. Okay, I admit it. I just added “sphere” to “media” to make it sound cooler. I’m a slave to fashion.

    2. I made the “World Wide Wade” logo myself, thank you very much. Like the title “World Wide Wade” itself, it’s intentionally a little goofy. The column takes a very wide, hopefully unconventional view of the IT world. That said, I’ve been thinking for a while about commissioning a new, slicker graphic. Or would that be too craven for you?

  • brian

    well i feel like a jerk, which isn’t surprising seeing as that was basically the goal of my previous post. it was a knee-jerk reaction to what i perceived as inexcusable transgressions of internet writing (as though i had written these standards myself). your sober and keenly patronizing reply has helped diminish my rage and i hope only that my criticism, delivered in such a childish way, was taken with as many grains of salt as such crass, anonymous ramblings of these kind always require.
    good day, sir

  • http://Www.Stolk.org Bram

    My advice to apple: keep it small.
    Twice the area of iPhone is perfect.
    Imagine two iPhones side by side.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @brian Touche! A pleasure sparring with you. Seriously. When our articles get Slashdotted (as this one did) it always brings in a new set of readers who aren’t afraid to needle us, and that’s valuable.

  • veggiedude

    “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”

    People only remember the 1.0 version of Newton. They later improved on it, and Newton OS beat out Windows 95 as the ‘Best of Show’ in the OS catagory at Comdex ’95.

  • Sharon Carmel

    Unless there is a breakthrough in input, the iSlate not going to happen.
    The interface will not be voice recognition because it is not good enough, and it is a change of habit (you feel stupid when it does not work).Tactile input will be less good than keyboard, so releasing a device which is new but less good than a laptop? No. The timing is wrong, iPhone has at least 1 additional good year if not two, why should Apple release the iSlate now? 99% iSlate is not going to happen on Jan. So please relax.

  • Robert Brown

    Excellent article. Very good insights.

    Especially that the iPhone itself created the gravity you mention. I’d never been tablet-attracted before, no interest. But, through the iPhone and its apps, the iTablet now has a tractor beam on my wallet, “Buy one, buy one!”

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  • iphonerulez

    Not everyone is eager to see an Apple tablet gain success. All those MS Windows fanbois, led by the Steve “Mr. Softy” Ballmer. They don’t want to see any Apple product gain favor since it might upset their Windows-on-everything fantasy world. 93% of the world on Windows is not enough. Better that Apple fail than advance the world of publishing. Just because Microsoft didn’t know how to present a tablet to the consumer, it doesn’t mean Apple will fail. Apple just needs to get plenty of media on it and make it easy for the average non-tech Joe to access. Microsoft could figure out such a simple problem and came out with tablets that had almost nothing on them.

    Bill Gates really liked tablets and tried to get people to use them, but he didn’t have the complete solution in hand. Steve Ballmer is a joke. He probably doesn’t care whether tablets succeed or not, but he just doesn’t want to sit in the back seat while Apple drives by. I hope the Microsoft Windows fanboys are praying already that the Apple tablet is a failure so their netbooks don’t fall out of favor. I’m sure they don’t envision a Windows world without physical keyboards.

  • Tom

    I’m not an Apple owner — I fix Windows machines for a living, and I’m finally satisfied with Win7 — but I would consider buying the Apple tablet… because Apple will get it right. The first one will be merely excellent, and subsequent versions will be fantastic.

  • Bob Studer

    While Alan Kay’s Dynabook existed as a concept, it never physically existed as the technology to create such a machine didn’t yet exist and the Alto was a far cry from a tablet. I don’t think it’s really fair to say that tablets have existed since 1968.

  • C B

    One feature could rocket this into business as well as personal use. Pen Input.

    If this device can do digital pen input along with a good, simple UI this could really start to make inroads for Apple with business users.

    Typing or drawing with fingers on a touch screen might be convenient but won’t feel efficient for longer work secessions.

    I used to love my old Tablet PC for this, but at the same time I didn’t need something as complex as a full tablet PC for taking digital notes.

  • prak

    @veggiedude:

    Too true. No one remembers the e-mate or the MessagePad 2000. Granted, it’s ’cause Apple had already shot themselves in the foot by releasing an unfinished product which also happened to lack a market, but still… ;-)

  • http://www.blazintech.net/ MariJewel

    How Apple Could Go Where No Computer Maker Has Gone Before? Yeah this is true. Especially that their newest product ‘iSlate’ is like an updated version of their other laptop models. On the side, I would also like to add if the battery of this ‘iSlate’ can provide ample amount of power just like the Dell XPS M1210 battery?

  • Thistle172

    Not to be an uber-nerd, but Picard did have a PC-lookin’ thingamajig on his desk, and there were such devices elsewhere.

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  • Dave52

    @Sharon Carmel:

    Apple may surprise everyone and do something unexpected in the input area. Most people seem to assume they’ll put a virtual keyboard on the screen, which they may very well do.

    But what if they include something like a projector-based virtual keyboard (i.e., one that projects key images onto a surface and captures keystrokes)? Like tablet computers, those have been around for years but have not taken off either. Maybe Apple can get that right. Or they may come up with some other input scheme. I wouldn’t rule out an input breakthrough just yet.

  • Gandanguru

    I think you don’t see any desktop-style workstations in StarTrek because in the movie, NOTHING IS ACTUALLY MADE. It is a ready-to-use, prefab world, both in hard and software. No carpenters to be seen.
    Whereas, were I on board, I would be bored and want to sit and MAKE something, write a booklet, goof up kinky pics of Captain Kirk, develop nicer interfaces, etc.
    I probably would be doing that working on the mainframe, but not with voice-controls only.
    I would need a mainframe-connected graphic tablet, and maybe a keyboard, and a desk to sit and think…

  • Oliver

    One issue is how you hold onto the device without it sliding around. A book folds in the center, making it easy to hold with one hand and flick pages with the other. It is easy to read with or without a surface to rest it on. A single rectangular plate is much harder to grip. A conventional laptop actually on your actual lap is hard to use with both hands because one is needed to stop the thing from sliding around. I like to see a folding computer that actually handles like a book when the fold is vertical: with an LED screen on the left for navigation + web surfing, and a reflective electronic paper screen on the right. The device easily positioned securely by one hand at the top of the “spine” while the other navigates and flicks through virtual pages, highlights text, etc. (Exporting hilighted text with references would be great for academic use).

    When held with fold horizontal, the top screen would be a normal screen (with touch apps available) while the bottom screen would display a virtual keyboard. Your I-phone would slide into a side slot, automatically syncing and making the machine a speaker phone – with a headset option.

  • Wade Roush

    @Oliver: The folding computer you are describing sounds a lot like Microsoft’s Courier prototype or the Alex e-reader from Spring Design (except that the Alex doesn’t fold). I’m with you on the concerns about the ergonomics of tablets. I have a Kindle, and while I love it, I feel like the designers still haven’t figured out how you’re supposed to hold the thing: There isn’t enough thumb space on the front of the device for a solid opposable grip, so I often wind up lying on the couch with the device balanced on my midriff.

    I anticipate that this lack of an obvious place to grip the device would be even more of a problem with an Apple iSlate, which will no doubt be heavier than the Kindle (and have a lot more touchable, smudge-able screen real estate on the front). You almost wish that slate designers would supply you with a nice rubberized external grip — but I’d keel over from surprise if the iSlate has this feature, since it would ruin the beautiful iPhone-like aesthetic of the device.

    Overall, this ergonomic issue is one of the things that tablet makers have never gotten quite right. It MIGHT be one of the things that Apple has finally figured out. It would be nice if they had, anyway. We’ll see!

  • Sharon Carmel

    I think it may be like a laptop were the screen is dethouched from the keyboard or the keyboard fully folds to the back of the screen. think that the mother board and battery is a part of the screen and the keyboard I’d just a keyboard. So you get the best of both worlds: a full size keyboard (very thin 1-2mm) that can serve as protector for the screen and the big Tablet that everybody wants.
    Cool!

  • http://gilmoure.tumblr.com Gilmoure

    As far as holding a tablet goes, if it’s paperback book size, yeah, that’s one handed, I think. If it’s 10″ screen, you’re looking at something about the same size as a Wacom 6×9″ tablet. I’ve had several of those they’re not the easiest things to hold for long periods. I suppose, if they put a thumb hole in it, similar to a painter’s pallet, that might work.

    All the same, I’d love to have a 10″ media/web device for use around the house. I have a Mac Mini as a media server (hooked up to Airport Express) and am really hoping a tablet would be able to stream movies and media from it. And if you could get bluetooth high fidelity headphones, it would ROCK! Might need some sort of stand for it but I’m sure third party will take care of that.

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