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A Tablet Mac? Give Me a Break!

As I’ve said in these columns on more than a few occasions, the media is desperate to convince Apple to build a netbook. They see the apparent success on the Windows side of the computing universe, and they feel Apple is losing big time not to have their own contender.

Well, maybe so, except I think the jury is out as to whether netbooks are going to prove to be major successes or passing fads. Indeed, that’s a question that may not be fully answered until later this year, when a hopefully improving economy and the holiday season allows the public to demonstrate its real preferences.

The other model being talked up is the so-called tablet computer. Now a common iteration of a tablet is a note-book with a swivel screen and the ability to write on the display courtesy of a stylus. In that sense, you might consider it a grown up version of a Palm Pilot.

If you can believe the published reports, Apple has already selected one or more companies to build such a beast, which indicates that development must be at an advanced stage, and the official release may be just a few months way. One report says everything is confirmed, but not till 2010.

What they forget, of course, is that if a contract manufacturer dared to reveal that they are building something previously announced for Apple, you can bet they’d be violating a carefully-worded confidentiality clause and would be in danger of botching the deal big time.

Now the fact of the matter is that tablets haven’t demonstrated acceptability to the masses so far. They generally serve strictly vertical markets. In fact, our family doctor uses them in his practice. Both he and his assistants take their Fijitsu tablet note-books with them when examining patients. They are all connected via Wi-Fi, and are able to consult records, including lab tests, as the doctor begins his consultation on the state of our health.

Indeed, when the Steinberg family needs prescription renewals, the doctor simply selects the appropriate checkboxes to email the renewal to our preferred pharmacy. He can just as easily provide a printed copy via one of the office laser printers.

Now all this “magic” is accomplished by a dedicated software package that can clearly cater strictly to the Windows market, since the closest thing to a Mac tablet is produced in limited quantities by a third party manufacturer.

While a tablet is certainly suitable for a medical practice and a number of other businesses, can they truly be considered mass-market products — or a rousing success for that mattter? That’s the question that the media isn’t answering, but it is certainly a factor Apple would have to seriously consider if they were to seriously entertain the idea of building a product of this sort.

True some regard the Mac tablet as Apple’s ultimate answer to the netbook equation. This proposed product would possibly be roughly the size of the Amazon Kindle DX, which sports a 9.7-inch display and is about a third of an inch thick. However, rather than use a stylus, you’d let your fingers do the writing in the same fashion as the iPhone and iPod touch. It could have a specialized e-book function, an optimized screen display to emphasize crisp text in color and black and white, but would perhaps otherwise be a grown-up iPhone. In other words, more netbook than tablet.

What about a keyboard? Well, quite possibly, this Apple netbook or whatever you call it would support Bluetooth input devices, and maybe even have a snap-out stand so it could be propped up on your desktop and serve as a miniature personal computer.

Let’s face it, I’m mostly shooting from the hip here. I have no idea whether this is the sort of gadget that the tech media is salivating about. What I am convinced of, however, is that you can’t really consider it the Mac equivalent of the tablet computer that has carved out a niche in PC land. That just doesn’t make sense to me, since that form factor, as I’ve said, simply doesn’t appeal to most PC users.

Then again, this isn’t the first time Apple has been told what to do, rather logical or not.

For example, how often have folks clamored for an Apple media center, the better to compete with the ones on the Windows platform? However, the concept of putting a DVR in a PC has not been a resounding success. It’s largely redundant, since the one you get from your cable or satellite provider is quite serviceable, and you can always consider a genuine TiVO if you feel the interface advantage is worth the cost (I don’t think it is!).

In the end, maybe I’m just quibbling about semantics here. A main reason is simply that we may not yet have a precise term for the sort of product Apple may or may not be contemplating. Regardless, if you look at the words being bandied about not as a strict development direction but as a rough concept, maybe there could be something to all of this speculation But don’t accept anything you hear about such a thing as a fact — unless it comes directly from Apple!