Is the iTablet a Product in Search of a Purpose?

July 29th, 2009

If you have tech sites on your regular media diet, you might believe that Apple has already released a tablet computer, and you’re wondering just where you can buy one.

Rest assured, however, that no such gadget has been announced, at least not yet. Depending on whom you believe, though, there may be one this fall, or perhaps early next year. That depends on the state of product development, Apple’s priorities and factors regular people probably can’t fathom.

However, far be it for me to pose a logical alternative, but there are larger questions about such a device that have yet to be fully explored. The first is where the iTablet, MacTablet — or whatever it will be called — might be situated in Apple’s product line. Will it be based on the MacBook innards, and thus able to run the standard version of Mac OS X with the appropriate modifications to support tablet computing? Or will it be in large part a grown up iPod touch with the standard iPhone operating system, plus beefier hardware to support the fatter form factor?

One mockup photo I saw recently shows what is essentially a blown-up iPhone seated on a stand, in front of which is a regular Apple aluminum keyboard. It looks nice and all, but is hardly a practical solution for road warriors. After all, with a note-book, you only have one device to cart around. With the iTablet and its accessories, there are three, plus a mouse of course. Does that make any sense to you?

I suppose you might respond that the iTablet will normally be used as a touch-based device, same as the iPhone. It’ll just sport a much larger keyboard and Apple could, I suppose, add circuitry for tactile feedback to convey the impression that you are working with physical keys. That would be neat. It would otherwise be little different from the regular iPhone, although it’s an open question whether it will sport 3G connectivity. If it does, of course, it’s quite possible a wireless carrier would subsidize the purpose price, so a $799 product will cost, say, $499. Understand I’m only guessing here.

Now this is all well and good, but now we turn to the second, larger issue. Just what purposes it would serve?

Sure, medical professionals and other vertical markets might embrace them. I can imagine that architects might take them to a construction site to update plans based on unexpected issues confronted by the builders. All told, there are certainly a fair number of business uses for an Apple tablet computer.

The consumer picture might be murkier, though. The joy of the iPhone and the iPod touch is that they weigh just a few ounces and are easily transported. However, they are also surprisingly powerful portable computers and thus can handle a variety of tasks from email, Web surfing and amazingly robust gaming. Once you expand the screen from 3.5 inches to 10 inches, however, it’s no longer so easy to cart around. Suddenly you find yourself tossing it in a suitcase, a backpack, or a custom-configured carrying case. The form factor has morphed into that of a smaller note-book — or, shudder, shudder, netbook — and that creates complications.

Other than the larger screen size, just what advantage does an iTablet offer over an iPhone? Sure, I suppose it’ll be a better appliance for reading e-books and magazines. In that sense, the full-color screen could likely smoke the Amazon Kindle, even the larger DX version. It would also be a great way for kids to watch movies on the road, in situations where the screen of the iPhone is just too small. Tasks that involve some sort of text input would also be accomplished in a far more efficient fashion. You might even be able to comfortably write an entire blog entry or a full-fledged manuscript on the larger virtual keyboard. Neat!

However, at what point does the iTablet conflict with the market for a standard MacBook or MacBook Pro? That it’s smaller and more comfortable to cart around across large airport terminals and all? Well, Apple could also build a smaller MacBook, say with an 11-inch or 12-inch screen, keep the price in the same range and deliver all the advantages of a full-blown personal computer? Where is the line of demarcation and is the presence of a touch screen the only differentiator?

Would an iTablet cannibalize sales from the standard Mac note-book lineup, or would most customers decide they prefer the real thing and would be willing to sacrifice many of the Multi-Touch features? Besides, if Apple were to add touch screens to its note-books, while retaining the full-sized keyboard, wouldn’t that fill the bill?

I realize that I am not covering all potential usability issues of an iTablet in this article. The novelty factor alone might be sufficient to sell millions of them before customers wake up and realize that such gear just might be little more than fancy substitutes for a real note-book, with such notable downsides as the lack of an integrated physical keyboard and trackpad.

In denigrating the netbook, Apple has pointed to the known shortcomings of existing products, and broadly hinted at having better ideas should they decide to enter that market. Is an iTablet the solution or is there something else under Apple’s sleeves?

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13 Responses to “Is the iTablet a Product in Search of a Purpose?”

  1. dfs says:

    I gotta cringe when I hear about the possibility of a contract. For me, a that would be an absolute deal-breaker. If this were an iTouch on steroids I might spring for one, if it turned out there was something of value I could do for it. But if it were marketed according to the same model as the iPhone, there’s no way in the world I’d buy one, it would be waaay too rich for my blood. Am I alone in thinking that way?

  2. Yacko says:

    Apple has probably decided to take a first stab at a new category and a really thin, really light weight tablet will be a good start. That doesn’t mean the design won’t evolve as time goes by. After all, the all-in-one Mac has morphed from the compact Macs to the colorful iMac to the iMac as a slabbed laptop in aluminum. The day the tablet folds in half and the screen covers the hinge is the day Apple has a killer device and everybody will want one. As to this guy’s comment “I gotta cringe when I hear about the possibility of a contract…”, you better get used to it. It’s a wireless world and wireless companies want to move beyond phones, hook you but good in the mobile space, and eventually replace the wire in your home and give you a data cap. It is one of the few insanely profitable services left on the planet and they want to continue to grow. In ten years they want everyone (especially a next generation) to forget metal wires and optic cables and I believe they can pull it off.

  3. mcloki says:

    An iTablet with a scalable keyboard. This is the perfect computer for my Mom. Eyesight. She can use it anywhere. She will always have access to her grandkids photos, e-mail and internet.

    My Mom loves her mac mini but it keeps her in the computer room. This would free her to roam about the house. Drop a phone into this thing and it would cover all of her needs. Phone, TV, Movies, E-mail. Skype calls from her iTablet would be the ultimate.

  4. Terry says:

    Hi Gene
    As always, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Does anyone remember the Newton, or more to the point, the eMate?
    When I was still a teacher, I even attended a seminar about using the eMate in the classroom. If handwriting recognition had been sorted out, it might have stood a chance, but for the price, it was just a big, clunky alternative to a notebook/scratchpad.
    The ONLY thing that stood out was that kids could print via IR to a printer at a central location in the room. Not enough of a benefit in my book.

    Keep up the excellent work. Yours is a voice of sanity in a really nutso field.

  5. @ Terry: Thank you. Alas, there is no handwriting recognition on the planet that can parse my scribbles. 🙂


  6. Peter says:

    After yesterday, I may end up being labelled the resident “Microsoft Shill”… 🙂

    Awhile back, a co-worker of mine defected to “the dark side” (more money, better job security) and the company gave him a Windows-based tablet computer to use. He absolutely fell in love with it with the same enthusiasm that many Mac users have. He could list off a few conveniences (taking quick notes in a meeting was much easier, he claimed) but a lot of his enthusiasm came from his belief that it felt “right.” This was as much of a surprise to him as it was to anyone else. He got the tablet more as a whim–he had the money in his budget and, hey, why not–but he became quite the evangelist for tablets.

    As Mac users know, there’s more to the computer than the sum of it’s parts. And while we can see various environments where things like this could be useful (medical, warehouses, etc.), the thought that using a tablet with a virtual keyboard and pen input might actually be a better way to use a computer than a keyboard and mouse may be a surprise to all of us.

    When Microsoft first started pushing tablet computers, I commented that it won’t succeed until Apple does it. At the risk of over-generalizing, Windows users are not risk takers and using a tablet is a risk. Windows users are the more right-brained analyzers who need to see the numbers on productivity and things like that. They’re certainly not going to be swayed by arguments that it “feels better.” Mac users, conversely, are less risk-averse and will try out new things.

    So while the right-brained analysis says that something like this would have limited market appeal, don’t be surprised to find that people actually like using this.

  7. Andrew says:

    I too am a tablet fan, though I don’t currently own one. The form factor of the convertible tablet is terrific in many uses, such as on an airplane or in a car, standing up, etc. If Apple had one, something small, light and strong, with full OS X, I’d buy it.

  8. Lia says:

    I have read a lot of articles about the so called “iTablet” and I’m pretty sure not many of them hinted at the fact that a touch screen that you would be able to write on with a stylus (hopefully) could be extremely useful for college students or just students in general. I was personally thinking about a tablet computer that I could take to class and take all of my notes on with. I absolutely loved macs and they did not offer one yet so I settled with a great computer and no tablet, but now with this possibility I am saving my money so I don’t have to lug my 15inch macbookpro to class all the time and type out equations in word

  9. jsk says:

    People keep mentioning handwriting recognition with the “iTablet.” I keep wondering how that is going to be achieved. Do you scribble with your index finger?!? Remember what is said to have mandated about the iPhone “NO STYLUS!” I’m afraid that IF this device is ever released (I don’t think it exists at all, myself) as a giant iPod Touch or iPhone, using it with a finger touch screen only is going to be a big disappointment. Keep in mind: real Photoshop users don’t “finger paint.” They use stylus equipped tablets with pressure sensitivity and precise tips (Wacom’s Centiq line, stylus tablet with built-in display, START at $1000, btw). And as for architects using it to modify CAD drawings in the field? Well here’s an exercise, find an old pencil sharpener and get your finger tip dirty with the ground “lead.” Now try to do a precise drawing using your finger tip. Doesn’t work, does it. (I do CAD drawings for living, btw.)

    Without a pressure sensitive stylus, I’m afraid the “iTablet” becomes a lot like the AppleTV: A solution in search of a problem (or as Jobs puts it, “a hobby.”).

    P.S. Oh, and has anyone played with that hp touch screen all-in-one? I have. How, exactly, does one to real work (not the simple point and click tasks of the iPhone) through all that finger oil and dirt?

  10. DaveD says:

    Here is what I am hoping to see in the crystal ball.

    The popularity of laptops, iPhones, iPod touch and ugh, netbooks have a common feature, wireless Internet connectivity. This is what driving up sales, it is what the consumer want, 24/7 access to the net anywhere.

    Apple wants to extend this market and also, provide the bulk of the media content. Internet download of movies and TV shows will push DVD to the side. E-books sales may just take off.

    This mythical device which I’m calling the MacPad or iPod pad (depending on the OS and processor), is primarily for recreational use. Watching a movie or a TV show, listening to music, playing a game, reading a book or just going online.

    It has to be very durable, easy to carry around and has an extra long battery life. Primarily a touchscreen with an optional use of a stylus, mouse, or keyboard for input. Lots of storage would be a main requirement like the small hard drive used in the iPod classic. Flash RAM or SSD would hold the OS. Finally, USB ports. I would be asking too much for FireWire.

  11. Richard says:

    I certainly hope that Apple have something up their sleeve. Although there are some circumstances where a touch screen can be of use, there are probably at least as many, perhaps more, where being limited to a touch screen would make the device a PITA to use. I can not see doing much in the way of email or document creation with a touch screen only device.

    For as much as Apple is likely to charge for this thing, whatever it may be called, it had better have capabilities that are missing from all existing devices or it will be a solution in search of a problem.

    Oh, by the way…Apple! Wake up! Offer the non-glare screens in EVERYTHING! Just about anyone’s product is useless with the current generation of screens in any brightly lit environment. Nobody cares what lame excuses you are offering this week. Just do it!

  12. Jayne says:

    I’m sure Apple has plans in the work for basically EVERYTHING!

  13. Some good thoughts in here – article and comments! 🙂

    I personally think there are 2 sweet-spots Apple could target, differently to the alternatives out there.

    1) A 9-10″ iBook. Like the MacBook Air – but smaller and thinner. I’m talking iPhone thinness. It has to use iPhone technologies to achieve that – both because the ARM is smaller and more power efficient, and the iPhone OS will restrict usage so people don’t expect to run photoshop or Final Cut on it. It could be very light and effective.

    2) A 9-10″ iPad. Like the iPhone but larger. Still ultra thin, thinner than any other notepad. And it MUST NOT run OSX apps with “appropriate modifications”, it has to use specialised apps that don’t start with the concept of keyboard and mouse. As in #1, the ARM chip also allows it to be smaller and more power efficient.

    Ultra light is key to either. Apple has the related technologies to make that portability possible, and has already demonstrated the guts to make a device do LESS than everyone wishes and tells them, so that it does what it does WELL.

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