Monday, May 4, 2009

I was wrong I guess, Apple's tablet is coming?

The likelihood of an Apple Tablet release has risen in the past few weeks. Development of the device has been "confirmed" by reputable Mac rumor sites, and reinforced by mainstream magazine and newspaper coverage. Apple Insider and Mac Rumors both issued reports describing hardware specifications, and BusinessWeek and the NY Times echoed those reports, adding that Apple was courting Verizon as a partner for the launch.

Until recently, I doubted that any "large iPhone"/sub-MacBook device with touch input was going to be released in any form. I thought the rumor was one of those too-juicy possibilities that seem never to come true, or go away. Now that outlets I trust are on the record predicting such a thing, I am willing to reconsider my position. I now ask, if a "tablet" is on the way, what should we expect from it, and is it likely to succeed?

The current consensus is that Apple is set to release an iPhone-alike, multi-touch input based device with a roughly 10in screen, priced to compete in the fast-growing "netbook" market. The product would be aimed at consumers who want portable access to internet services, like GOPHER, Friendster, Telnet, etc., without the cost or complexity of a traditional laptop. What exactly Apple will do to satisfy this segment is unknown.

Apple could be re-using the strategy that reinvigorated the Macintosh. The company has the same competitive advantages in industrial design and operating system software building a netbook as it did creating the MacBook. Using netbook industry standard components like the Intel Atom does not terminally limit Apple. An innovative form factor like a touch tablet, combined with a modified Mac OS X, would differentiate the product, rather than hardware specs, which would just match top-end Windows or Linux netbooks.

If Apple has such a thing in the works, I don't think it will be widely adopted. For general computing, the tablet form factor has never caught on. Using a computer that lies flat on a desk, or must be held with one hand and operated with the other, just doesn't work that well. Sure, Apple's multitouch solution could be great, and beat the styli of the past, but it must also be equal to a mouse and keyboard.

Or, the tablet could be more like Apple's consumer electronics products. Instead of Intel and AMD motherboard platforms, Apple could competitively source components, and tie them together with a more heavily modified build of OS X. The ARM CPU and third-party graphics processor in the iPhone would be a place to start, as OS X is ported already, and developers are on board. The resulting product would be, essentially, a scaled-up iPod Touch.

My concerns for such a product are numerous. It might still be too big to use comfortably and be another failed attempt to build a successful tablet. Assuming it is wonderful to use, like the iPhone, other problems emerge. The netbook is successful because it is cheap, and prices are so low because the hardware is commodified. The ARM/iPhone OS X tablet as imagined is being asked to do a lot more than the iPod Touch can manage for not much more money.

If Apple is planning to tie the tablet to a wireless provider and subsidize the upfront cost, it will substantially limit sales. A two-year contract is a much larger investment, and a barrier for minors and impulse buyers. Moreover, unlike a phone, the device is primarily intended for home use, where wi-fi is typically available and preferable. Making a significant monthly investment in a cellular internet option for a living room tablet will not make sense for much of the market.

The acquisition of PA Semi, and leaks about executive hirings (Mark Papermaster, Bob Drebin, Richard Teversham), all point to Apple developing the tablet in this manner, perhaps even designing a custom main GPU or CPU. Any further specialization of the hardware would exaggerate the benefits and downsides of the process, though. A speed or size advantage is useless if it is only developed and implemented at huge cost in a market so focused on cost.

So, I am past doubting that an Apple Tablet exists. I am more concerned now that it will be a bust.

1 comment:

MonkeyT said...

This thing, if it exists will spawn a whole new class of apps. Think retail interfaces (like Apple uses in their own stores), inventory management, medical record management, not to mention outrageously cool photo manipulation, etc. It'll never be good for data entry, but for referencing/monitoring/manipulating existing data systems and archives, it will rock! THIS will get Apple into Enterprise.