Tuesday, March 10, 2009

iPod Touch Tablet or Netbook?

The Mac web is being flooded with "Apple is building a netbook" rumors on a daily basis. Some claim a MacBook Cheap is coming, others a tablet-sized iPhone/iPod Touch variant. Neither makes much sense.

A "MacNetBook" isn't coming. A super-cheap OS X laptop is detrimental for too many reasons. Cannibalization of profitable, full-freight Mac Mini and MacBook sales seems inevitable, and Apple hates that. The netbook price point means a MacNetBook would have a mediocre screen, no GPU, and a dated or sub-notebook class CPU. It would be a cruddy computing experience, sullying a Mac brand Apple has intentionally positioned as the opposite. Finally, creating a slow, cheap general purpose computer means supporting it with software and OS updates, and Apple hardly needs another platform worth of development work.

The iPod Tablet isn't coming either. Such a device dodges cannibalization, Mac brand confusion, and "new platform" issues, but adds a host of other problems. The iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod Touch 1 and 2 have all had the same screen size, touch keyboard layout, and input hardware design. Making a "giant iPod Touch" splits Apple's carefully-tended, homogenous offering in a number of ways.

All of the user learning that has made the touch keyboard a successful alternative to hard keys is gone, as all Tablet users would learn a larger, different soft keyboard. Switching between iPhone thumb input and whatever the tablet requires is as drastic as switching from any other platform, even if both are now OS X-based. A tablet with a hard keyboard is the alternative, but can anyone imagine an Apple OS X Kindle-alike formfactor being released?

App development would be complicated by a new form factor, and the simplicity of the "it works if you can see the App Store" model would be lost. Never mind that users will not tolerate a "more expensive iPod" that has fewer available Apps, certainly at first if not forever, as the market for such a device is way smaller than the multi-million per quarter Touch venue.

Finally, a tablet with the strictures of the iPhone/Touch offering is not as palatable for those who see the openness of other offerings in the price range. It is one thing to trade a Razr for the iPhone with App Store. A netbook switcher confronted with no USB, no disk drive, and the constraints of the rest of the iPhone OS X scheme would have some reason to complain.

So why the rumors? Apple is working on a true iPhone/iPod Touch 2, such a thing is a certainty, and that work is probably generating a lot of speculation. Along with future Mac development, this work is likely coalescing around the most important Apple product right now, OS X 10.6. Once 10.6 is out, Apple will have their next base platform in place, with all the right accommodations for a range of cross-compatible iPhone 2 offerings, and a range of (GPU-heavy) Macs. A Tablet sprung from the last days of the PPC/Intel/Classic mishmash of Leopard is massively unlikely.

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