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The iSlate Report: So Where Does Apple’s Creativity End?

Regardless of what Apple really does later this month at a rumored media event, this might be considered the month of the tablet as far as they’re concerned. Indeed, so many people actually expect such a thing to happen that Apple might be shooting itself in the foot if no such product is actually released.

Certainly, buyers are ready, and no matter what the rumored iSlate or whatever it’s going to be called actually contains, millions will be sold within the first few months. Of course, sustaining a market will require a lot more than hype.

Indeed, there was plenty of hype surrounding the Mac Cube also, and initial sales were good, despite the fact that what many regarded as a museum piece was underpowered and overpriced. It goes to show that all flash and little substance cannot be an assured success.

These days, however, Apple receives plenty of positive press. The iPod was a huge success, the iPhone a phenomenon beyond most expectations and the Mac has staged a huge comeback in recent years. At the same time, Microsoft’s efforts to remain relevant have faltered, so they’ve been forced by the marketplace to rely on their old standbys, such as operating systems, office suites and server produces.

You just know that Apple’s competitors want to head the company off at the pass. There are already reports that new tablet-style computers will be introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show within days, although it’s questionable just what sort of operating system interface they’ll use. If it’s just the same old failed Windows-bred tablet motif, it’ll be too little and too late.

At the same time, is an Apple tablet a dream come true, or just a response to years of clamoring from the media and customers that such a product must be built?

Of course that’s the question I’ve been raising in recent weeks. If the iSlate is going to be a gussied up iPhone, how does it advance the state of the art? If the interface is the same, and the software is the same, except for modifications to accommodate a larger screen size, where’s the benefit?

An e-book?

As most of you know, the Amazon Kindle has been quite successful, and its manufacturer claims that some book titles are now faring better in electronic rather than printed form. However, don’t forget that iPhone and iPod touch users can already download and install a Kindle app. The iSlate would surely have an expanded version, and there are already other book and magazine reading apps. Nothing new there, other than a larger screen size to allow for greater reading comfort and perhaps more flexibility in managing different forms of content, such as textbooks.

There are, in fact, more and more stories that publishers, stung by the rapid decline of printed fare, are begging Apple to establish some sort of sales and subscription program, perhaps using the App Store. Another set of rumors addresses TV content, perhaps an effort to establish Apple as a dead-on competitor to cable and satellite TV.

A decent number of publisher partners might not be terribly difficult for Apple to collect, since most of them are desperate for new income opportunities, particularly those who have daily newspapers in their repertoire. But when it comes to TV networks, the recent skirmishes involving cable systems and carriage fees makes it crystal clear that contracts won’t be easy to negotiate.

Even if you consider the superior skills of Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and other senior Apple executives in navigating the rough waters of the entertainment industry, would are they seeking? Would it be just another service with 300 or so channels? Hardly, since Apple doesn’t deliver me-too products and services. Besides, even if you have all those channels, most customers still struggle to find a handful with shows worth watching.

Even if Apple does offer a new media content service, how does that relate to a tablet-based computer anyway? Certainly your Mac or Apple TV already serve the function of managing media, although you could certainly perform such chores within the diminutive screen environment of the iPhone and iPod touch. But I see them better suited as remote controls for larger devices.

So we return to the main issue: If Apple is going to build a tablet-based computer, they would have to devise new and better ways to allow you to create and consume content, and it would have to serve those functions with greater convenience and elegance than existing products. Otherwise, there would be no reason for such a product to exist, beyond the hopes and wishes from many that such a gadget is inevitable.

Honestly, these are questions I do not claim to be able to answer. But it’s a certainty that Apple doesn’t enter new markets unless they can make a genuine difference and earn healthy profits. The day of the tablet has supposedly been on the horizon for years. Maybe Apple has found a way to make that market segment successful and we’ll all be pleasantly surprised when and if the iSlate actually appears.

Till then, color me skeptical.