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Is the iTablet a Product in Search of a Purpose?

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?