Dirk Knemeyer

The Apple “tablet”: what to expect

Originally published on the Involution Studios blog

Tomorrow is the expected announcement of the new Apple “tablet” computer. Predictions for this device are all over the map, ranging from a “true” tablet computer, down to an oversized iPhone, and everything in between. I don’t have any inside information about Apple, but I think I have a pretty good idea what this new device is going to be. And if I’m wrong, Apple may just be releasing their first major lemon in a really long time.

I expect the new Apple device to be a “Kindle killer:” a device that leverages the iPhone OS in a larger and more versatile interface that is optimized for buying, transferring and consuming content. I hardly think it will limit itself to simply books or magazines; I expect this to be a next-generation media consumption device, to beautifully handle video and to incorporate gaming at least inasmuch as the iPhone does currently and quite likely even more.

Why? First off, I take for granted that Apple is going to largely “get right” whatever they release. They’ve been running too hot to bet against at this point. If they are going to get something right, what can it possibly be? Well, what it cannot be is a tablet computer. Tablets are niche machines that do not replace laptops for most computer users. The simple reason is that laptops are workhorses that allow people to use communication technologies in a very rapid and ubiquitous way. It takes mere moments to write a report, or fire off an email, or blurt out a text on a laptop, for the simple reason of the form factor: keyboard on the bottom, a hinge, then a monitor on the top. It is optimized for inputting text. Tablets, even those that have a hinge and a keyboard mode, are simply sloppy. They lack the fit-and-finish of a laptop in so many ways. Unless Apple solves some of the industrial design challenges in there, to make their tablet a laptop replacement, this cannot be a tablet computer. There would be nothing to have buzz about. It would not be anything special.

Once you consider the Apple device must, then, be smaller than a laptop the only proven market opportunity is that which the Kindle is currently dominating: a “tweener” device that cannot replace a laptop but is great for people who are on the move, or who want to leverage the benefits of digital technology to replace some of their old analog reading and communicating habits. The business model is proven; this is one of the hottest product categories out there and Apple has yet to jump in it.

I mean, seriously, unless Apple lays a massive egg, what else could this new “tablet” possibly be?

And of course Apple is going to beat Amazon. Apple has years of experience and mountains of content already behind it with the iTunes store. Music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, applications, ringtones and radio: all of it are currently there in great supply. Sure we can already get all of this on our iPhone, but there are (many) times that the form factor of the iPhone is anathema to a good user experience. A large screen would be nice. Something to hold more comfortably in our hand. Something with a little more humane input/output mechanism. The Kindle has already proven the product niche, now it will simply be Apple’s job to come in and mop the category up.

Ultimately it will not be quite so simple as that. But you can bet your lunch money for a month that Apple’s initial salvo will immediately be the product to beat. Everyone else will be playing catch-up.

For me the big unknown is gaming. Like the iPhone, this device will natively be able to play lots and lots of games. But as serious gamers know, iPhone games are largely cotton candy. Thanks to the tiny interface, there are only so many pixels and so much that can be done with it. The real opportunity for Apple here – and the one I’m not sure if they are going to step up and take – is competing with the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. The size and approximate form factors of those gaming systems should be approximately comparable to the new Apple device. If Apple has the technology and the chutzpah to take THOSE companies on directly, well, then this device will really be a story. If this new device can play games that are legitimately comparable to what people are playing on their Sony PSP’s then Apple will have pulled it off again, for the THIRD time in less than a decade: completely changing our notion of what digital technology can and should be.

Will they go all the way and take the gaming companies head-on? I don’t think so. And to be sure, even to produce a portable content device that clears out the Kindle category will be noteworthy. But it won’t so much as raise my blood pressure; I expect it. I’m not even sure if I’m interested in it. However, if Big Steve pulls the gaming rabbit fully out of the hat then I will quickly be on the waiting list and lusting after the device that yet again disrupts markets and industries, right out of a relatively humble little campus in Cupertino, California.

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