On the Much-Rumoured Apple Tablet

So the rumours of Apple Inc. releasing a Tablet are reaching a fever pitch.  So many analysts are reading the tea entrails and animal leaves (or maybe animal cookies) and coming up with "Ah-ha, an Apple Tablet!  Soon!" that it's getting hard not to believe it.

So maybe Apple will be producing one.  These same rumours were fairly correct about the iPhone in 2007... but on the other hand, there have been rumours about Apple putting out a Tablet for years.  Maybe they've been working on one for years, awaiting for a perfect alignment of hardware availablity stars with software moons and pricing planets...

(Ok, I think that's it for the fortune telling references...)

I've been planning to write this post for a couple of weeks, but I kept jotting down little notes of points that I'd wanted to make, but I kept leaving them in inconveniently different places.  What finally did it for me was John Gruber writing a post on his Daring Fireball blog yesterday, where he touched on some of the same points that I wanted to make.

Disclaimer: All of this is conjecture and wild guesses (hopes) over a heretoforth mythical device.  I have absolutely no idea if there even is a tablet, much less if any of this will turn out to be correct.  I have no inside information.  The only relationships that I have with Apple are 1) I have given them money, and they've given me products that I enjoy, and 2) I'm registered as an Apple Developer.  Sure you can look into that and see all kinds of opportunity for 'the inside scoop', but all it takes is giving them a valid email address.  They may care about seeding super-awesome preview-ness to superstar Devs, but I'm certainly not one of them.

With that out of the way, on with the show!

First off, the size and format.  Apple has stated several times that they have little to no interest in getting into the netbook market.  However their history of statements regarding products in secret development phases have made it clear that they often disparage a market while in the beginning phases, later claiming that 'they have many projects in development at any given time, but nothing to announce' and '...but there may be something to this [noun] thing...', to finally announcing "It's Here!  Prepare to swipe your credit card on [date]!"

I don't think Apple is looking to do a netbook, where the term implies a laptop form-factor shrunk down itty-bitty (7-10" roughly).  I think that the most likely form factor is a grown-up iPod Touch.  The most common speculations are 9-10 inches, with the occasional 7" mentioned.  As far as current tablet computers on the market go, this is a little on the small range.  Most that I've seen have been on the 10-13" range.  (My chiropractor has a little Toshiba convertable tablet that weighs in at around 10", and it's surprisingly nice.  Reasonable build quality.  Wacom-type pen, but the ability to swing the screen around and use the regular keyboard and touchpad is wonderful.)

So lets talk size.  My iPhone's screen is 3x2", making it about a 3.5" screen (diagonally, which is how screens are measured).  To make a 7" screen, you'd basically take an Touch's screen and quadruple it, so 6x4".  To make a 11" screen, you would use 3x3 iPod Touch Screens, coming out to 6x9".  (Yes, according to my friend Pythagoras, the actual numbers are 3.6", 7.2", and 11.2" measured diagonally, respectively.  We're going to ignore the fact that I'd been talking about 10" and then gave an approximation of 11" because it's easier for me.)  

I imagine (hope) that the OS will be iPhone OS-based.  I don't know why, but it seems to me that the iPhone OS could be extended for use on a tablet.  The thought of doing relatively minor tweaking to the Mac OS just doesn't feel right to me.  (This may be sourness over having used WinXP Tabled Edition.)  I like the idea of being able to use iPhone Apps on a potential Tablet as well.  If this should be the case I also especially hope that it allows for multitasking.  While I seldom miss multitasking in the iPhone, there are occasions where it becomes tedious to switch back and forth between apps.  Honestly, it happens less than I'd expected before I got my iPhone.  Unfortunately, I don't think that simply scaling up your standard table-view iPhone app (like Mail or the iPod App) to use the full screen makes much sense, though.  They just wouldn't look very good, and would probably feel pretty chunky.  This is where the multitasking comes into play; I think that the Tablet would (could) allow for each app to run in it's own window, laid out on the screen like a deck of cards.  (Tarot cards, perhaps...?  Sorry, couldn't resist.)  Whether laid out in a grid, or being able to arrange them free-form would be especially nice, I think.  I can think of demos that I've seen (one of a 3d Java Desktop that Sun never brought to market, but was kinda shown up by Compiz/Beryl; and another for a physics-based gesture-manipulated desktop.  I think I saw it on TED.com) that could work, but it would really take too long to try to get written down.  Maybe after the tablet is released and proves all of this conjecture completely wrong, I'll write something up.  Anyway, being able to keep multiple windows open at a time would be nice.

You say "Fine, but that doesn't make sense for all apps.  What about Games and such?!"  I agree.  Taking what is a full-screen app on the Touch probably wouldn't look or act very well as a windowed app for many apps.  Using my hypothetical dream OS, I imagine that you would be able to selectively make an app fullscreen, possibly setting it to open that way every time.  I would hate to see my beloved Star Wars Trench Run at it's native resolution windowed app on a 7" or 11" screen, and without significant scaling and dithering magic it probably wouldn't look very good at fullscreen.

So, what's left to do if an app is inappropriate to run as a windowed app, and would look bad at fullscreen?  It sounds like a LOOOOOOT of work, but at this point, it may make sense to get the app developers involved.  They could:
-set a preference for an app to be able to run full-screen or windowed.  I'm big into individual choice, so this would be how the app starts running initially.  They can specify whether their app should begin in fullscreen or as windowed if they detect that they're running on a Tablet.  The user should be able to override this setting.
-Submit to the app store a version specifically for running on the Tablet's native screen resolution.  This seems to make the most sense to me for Games and apps with custom graphics.  Some apps could go either way to me.  Photoshop Mobile comes to mind for some reason.  These apps (particularly the cinematic games) could be even more amazing than many already are on the iPhone.

Another potential market would be to breathe new life into Dashboard Widgets!  While generally free, and often overlooked, these works of Javascript and CSS could find new use and utility on a Tablet.  What would be wonderful is if they also incorporated support for Yahoo Widgets (nee Konfabulator, sadly), but that's a pipedream.  (Man, I loved my Konfabulator...)

What of the media player?  I think that iTunes is great on computers, and the iPod app is great on the iPhone and iPod Touch, but I don't think either is quite right for the elusive Tablet.  Sure, you could just throw the iPod app in as a windowed app, but the direction that iTunes has taken on the desktop (especially with the Cover Flow view and such), I think that that could be a mode of operation, but not likely to be the main view.  I imagine that a hybrid application would be presented to the user.  I have a couple of ideas floating around, but nothing really solid yet.  I may also spend few cycles outlining something.  (Again, just to satisfy my own need to solve problems.  I'd be catastrophically shocked if anyone took them seriously.)

A brief moment on connectivity.  Wifi I think can be taken as a given.  Bluetooth could go either way, though I think it would make great sense (which I'll come to later).  Now, there's rampant speculation that AT&T will be losing the iPhone exclusivity deal in the US soon, and that Verizon seems the likely incumbent.  On the other hand, even if Apple doesn't wait for that, there doesn't seem to be any problem with Apple releasing a non-iPhone device to run on another carrier's (read: Verizon's) network, if they wanted to provide a ubiquitously-connected device.  It would help them to more directly compete with the Amazon Kindle as far as an ebook device and portable browser.

Now, what about Syncing.  USB / Dock Connector seems likely, but I'd also like to see an over-the-air Wifi sync.  I think the time has come.  That's not to say that there aren't a lot of problems inherit in that model, with security being among the highest.  It would be convenient, but it is ripe for abuse.  It also could cause significant problems in the Enterprise.  Security would be even more of a concern, as well as potential conflicts with multiple devices.  These are solvable problems, but they do need to be acknowledged and addressed.

What about typing?  At these sizes, and being a tablet, they seem too small to touch-type on (not that you can accurately and reliably touch-type on a touchscreen, and too big to just use your thumbs.  Sure, you could hunt-and-peck, but for me, I'm frustrated if I have to h-n-p more than about three letters on a regular keyboard.  I'm happy touch-typing, or two-thumbs (on the phone), but I don't know about anything else.  So, back to the possibility of Bluetooth...  I think that that would be especially helpful here to be able to connect a bluetooth keyboard and go that route.  Hell, it may breathe new life into the Palm Pilot peripherals market (and raise some prices on some ebay auctions!)

But that brings me to a potentially significant question:  How would you hold it for use?  Let's assume that you're doing something more rigorous than watching a movie or reading (web page, rss feed, or ebook).  I suppose even photo manipulation wouldn't be too bad, but what if you have some significant typing to do?  Even entering a midsize URL could be a chore if I'm right about the problems typing (and you're like me when it comes to typing...)  My dad, for instance would probably be fine one way or the other since he doesn't touch-type.  I learned that skill in my early teens, so it's as natural to me as writing... Which brings me to a pen.  I think many would be thrilled to see pen use to be an option.  Even the Newton had phenomenal handwriting recognition, and that was 15 years ago!  Imagine how nice it could be now.  I know that the artists with their Wacom tablets could be thrilled at this event.  Granted, the tablet wouldn't be able to run a full-blown version of Photoshop or Illustrator (Damn, they've gotten bloated), but they could feasibly do some amazing work on a tablet.  In fact, it's been that community that's been clamouring for a Tablet for years!  On top of that, I think that it could be a wonderful note-taking device.  For the meetings that I attend, I actually would be more comfortable with a pen-based device over a traditional laptop.  I have a Wacom Graphire 3 tablet that I thoroughly enjoy, but would be much more useful if I could draw directly on the screen.  It would be nice if Apple struck a deal with Wacom, but that doesn't seem their style.  Damn.

But again aside from sitting on your sofa, or jotting notes on a conference table, how are you to use it?  I'm imagining that you would need some sort of cradle or dock to set on your desk for reviewing or transferring your notes to your main machine.  'Cuz, let's face it, this will be the primary machine for very few people.  In fact, as I write this trifling of heresay, I'm getting excited at the possibilities such a device could bring, but am becoming increasingly aware that I most likely would never own one.

In retrospect, I suppose that this could be considered a netbook in some ways (if you tilted your head and squinted.)  As imagined, it would be a ultra-portable low-power computing device with wireless (and possibly ubiquitous) internet access, not intended to be a main computer, but able to get casual work and play done.

Regardless, all of this is conjecture one way or the other.  Most likely, I've got everything completely wrong...  


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