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  • Why an Apple Tablet?

    September 30th, 2009

    The speculation about a possible tablet computer from Apple has come thick and fierce all over again. The latest rumblings have it once again that Steve Jobs continues to shepherd the project through various obstacles, such as finalizing an actual design.

    Indeed, if you can believe those rumors, this gadget has gone through several major alterations, such as switching from Mac OS X to the iPhone OS, not to mention various screen sizes. If true, the alleged iTablet would be capable of running existing iPhone apps, including that huge quantity of games. Of course how they’d scale up to a larger screen is anyone’s guess, although great graphical display is a normal part of the various OS X versions.

    Now nobody outside of Apple knows for sure whether such a product will truly see the light of day, despite the optimistic nature of some of those reports. The return to Apple of Michael Tchao, someone originally involved with the Newton, does make the entire concept seem sensible, though. In the end, maybe the stories are based on fact, and that some iteration of this gadget will appear. The real question, however, is what purpose it might serve.

    This is no small issue, and it’s one I’ve raised before. You see, Apple really doesn’t want to build a niche product, even though some of the critics apply that label to the Macintosh. They aren’t going to invest boatloads of development money in something that doesn’t see a solid return now and in the future. There has to be a long-term goal in mind, and not just some quick profits today. In that sense, Apple is very different from just about all the other PC makers on the planet.

    I rather suspect the netbook came about not because it was a neat idea, but a way for companies to build a cheap product and sell something, anything, in a down economy. In the end, it doesn’t matter one bit if those customers eventually return to standard PC note-books when they can afford the price of admission. Whatever sells is good.

    Apple doesn’t operate that way, which is why they weren’t first on the market with a digital media player or a smartphone. They waited to develop something they had faith in, something that would survive for a number of years. Even as iPod sales dip, more buyers are moving to the iPhone, which is, of course, part iPod. So Apple is only cannibalizing itself, which is just fine from their point of view.

    With an iTablet, we have to look at the purposes it serves. Certainly an enhanced gaming platform is a given, considering Apple’s rapidly growing success in that market. I would also suspect that this device would allow you to connect external input devices, such as game controllers, to greatly enhance the experience, and perhaps encourage developers to provide more of the features you find in a traditional gaming console. Certainly a high definition TV port, such as the new Mini DisplayPort, would be a huge plus.

    The latest online chatter has it that Apple is also courting newspaper and magazine publishers to bring their publications to the tablet platform. You can certainly see where Apple might even be developing enhanced text display features, designed to make the Amazon Kindle DX even more pathetic than it is now. If this caught on, it would, in small part, help salvage the publishing industry that’s seen incredible losses in sales and profits in recent years.

    However, I don’t think buyers would be lining up to acquire a $700 or $800 e-book reader. That’s just an additional and surely highly useful function.

    Surely businesses that find an iPhone’s screen too small could find lots of purposes for an Apple tablet. Physicians would use them to record patient information, as they do now with PC tablet-based note-books. Quality control people could tour a production floor with iTablet in hand to check inventory levels and deal with manufacturing issues. Courtroom reporters could use it to record both the audio and text of a legal proceeding, and anyone wanting a portable device with touch entry would be a potential customer.

    Graphic artists might find a larger touch screen presents a valuable new technique with which to generate and edit digital artwork, and the iTablet’s text entry features would be far more capable than that on the iPhone. You might even be able to write something containing more than a few paragraphs without hitting the wall in terms of flexibility.

    Naturally, lots of people who might have purchased a Mac note-book might consider the iTablet instead. But a sale is a sale, and that shouldn’t harm Apple’s bottom line. Even better would be to attract people from the Dark Side, some of whom are using an old-fashioned stylus to interface with an existing PC tablet.

    In case you’re wondering, I’m not at all certain whether I want a grown-up iPhone or iPod touch, however it’s labeled. I’m old fashioned enough to prefer the traditional note-book and, for that matter, desktop. On the other hand, maybe a few hours exposure to an iTablet will make me change my tune.

    That is, of course, should such a device actually appear. Despite what you’ve read, that is by no means certain.

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