The hype and attention surrounding the impending launch of the Apple tablet is a fascinating marvel in the tech industry. The product has not even been launched yet - Apple (AAPL) has not officially confirmed that the product is even in development - but nevertheless the entire tech community from media to consumers is absolutely enthralled by the Apple tablet, or islate, or whatever you want to call it. And yet despite all of the hype, only a small few, such as Paul Buchheit, have given a decent explanation as to why we would want this mystical tablet when we already have smartphones, netbooks, and desktop computers. In this post I will propose some ideas about how and why the tablet concept is going to differentiate itself from its computing brethren and revolutionize the world.
Too big to fit in your pocket, too wimpy to compete with a desktop computer, too limited without the ability to make phone calls or use as a handheld camera. Thats what people are saying about the tablet. Boy are they missing the point!
Without further ado, here are ideas about capabilities and features that a tablet will uniquely offer as compared to all other computing devices today.
The iphone has already revolutionized gaming with its touch screen interface, creating an entirely new gaming market and platform for people of all ages. But with a 3.5 inch screen and limited computing resources, there is only so far you can go with iphone gaming. The Apple tablet will play iphone games just fine, yet with its larger screen, more capable operating system, and the beefier hardware that can accompany its larger form factor, the games will be taken to an entirely new level. The Apple tablet will be the first ever widely adopted touchscreen interface of this size. Connect that with the itunes store for easy access to thousands of games, and you have yourself a winning recipe. If I were a gaming company, I would be salivating all over this tablet with a vengeance.
The Ultimate E-reader:
A high quality tablet from Apple will absolutely blow the socks off of Kindle, Nook, Kurzweil's new Blio, or any other e-reader available today. After watching other people rave about their Kindles for the last year I finally bought one a few months ago to see what all the fuss was about. I used my Kindle for about 2 days and then quickly relegated it to the dust bin. No color, clunky buttons, and such a pain in the ass to bookmark, clip, share, and markup that I didn't even bother to use such tools even if they existed. The Apple tablet will be different.
Books, articles, magazines, and other classical print media will look stunning on the Apple tablet with beautiful colors and details. Images and videos, sorely lacking from current e-readers like the Kindle, will come to life on the tablet. Even more impressive will be the Apple tablet's ability to add functionality that is simply not possible with classical printed media. Bookmarking your favorite passages in a book will be as easy as highlighting the text with your fingers or some sort of stylus and then storing them for later reference in an easy to use, searchable, graphical menu system. Borrowing from what we have learned on the internet with web documents, the Apple e-reader will allow you to clip, link, share, and in many other ways manipulate what you are reading. Integration with social networks will allow you to easily forward or share passages, images, and clips from e-reader documents with friends and colleagues. At some point, your friends or anyone else will be able to markup books and other documents on your tablet with comments, opinions, and other supplemental information of their own. Your e-book copy of Pride and Prejudice will not be a static document, but rather it will be something that is alive, connected to the rest of the internet through social networks and web 2.0 paradigms. When a character in a book visits real world places such as a building or location you will be able to click/press on the words and pull up a wikipedia reference or any other reference about the place. Many of these capabilities exist naturally on web documents, but never has an e-reader offered such capability. With the Apple tablet, traditional print media will finally receive the steroids boost that modern web based documents have enjoyed for more than a decade.
A la cart media:
With the launch of the Apple tablet, a la cart programming will be catapulted to a comprehensive level of offerings that will cause traditional cable broadcasters to shake in their boots. In the United States and in much of the world people pay their cable company for hundreds of channels even though most of them are crap. What we all really want is to order the programs that we want, when we want them, and we don't want to overpay for stupid all inclusive packages. If I only want to watch Seinfeld reruns and football why do I have to buy the hundreds of other channels offering stuff that I don't want? The iphone has already brought us substantial a la cart programming through itunes. Music, movies, lectures, and audio books are just a taste of the offerings currently available through the itunes store. With the launch of the Apple tablet, the already emerging trend of individualized a la cart offerings will be further entrenched.
Once millions of Apple tablets are out in the wild the critical mass will be achieved for individuals and independents to sell their own digital creations - movies, short videos, essays, tutorials, books - for a price that they choose - directly to tablet owners. An entire new market of individuals selling content directly to other individuals with itunes as the intermediary and the Apple tablet as the viewing device may emerge. Apple doesn't offer this sort of market at the moment because the iphone/itouch devices have not had the e-reader capability, screen size, and other features to make such a market feasible. With the launch of the tablet such a market may be born.
If it scares you just a little bit that Apple's grip on our lives as the middleman to so much media infrastructure will be so complete then you are not alone. The Apple tablet will only intensify the already scary walled garden that Apple has been building with its iphone/itouch/itunes platform during the last decade.
Our only hope of saving consumers from this disastrous enclosure will be Google, the white knight of technology that has several times now broken the grip of companies by creating open standards and open products such as android, chrome OS, chrome browser, free DNS, Google reader, Gmail, and so on. As a former employee of Google I am of course biased, but seriously if Google doesn't save us from Apple's walled garden, who will?
A patent uncovered by Gus Sentementes at the Baltimore Sun indicates that the Apple tablet may offer a revolutionary jump in user interfaces with a move to 3 dimensions. Objects will be released from their 2D cages, allowing us to spin them, flip them, rotate them, and so on. This will have obvious implications for the gaming revolution cited above, but will also offer new use cases for interacting with data and media. 3D interfaces such as those from Bumptop been relegated to research labs and small use cases thus far because a massively adopted consumer device has never offered the large touch screen interface that makes them practical. 3D interfaces simply don't work very well with a keyboard and mouse! The world has been waiting for a device such as the Apple tablet to take 3D user interfaces out of the lab and into the mainstream, and this is exactly what could happen.
Accelerometer, GPS, and touch interface like iphone, but better:
The accelerometer, GPS, and touch interface offered by the iphone has revolutionized our options for interacting with games and information. The Apple Tablet will take this paradigm to the next level. Working with spreadsheets, writing essays, sorting images, and countless other tasks simply are not practical on the limited sized screen and wimpy processing power of the iphone. The Apple tablet will offer the screen size and the computing resources to perform all of these tasks and more, but now these tasks will be augmented with the capabilities offered by GPS, accelerometers, and the touch interface. Sorting your thousands of photos could be done by "pouring" them into different virtual buckets. Items within excel style spreadsheets could be sorted not by clicking and dragging them with a mouse and shift/ctrl keys, but rather with natural grasping and dragging motions from your fingertips. The possibilities are enormous. Entire new use cases and methods for interacting with data will be born.
Manipulating information on the Apple tablet with our fingertips will be extremely useful, but certain operations will require more precision than our fat stubby fingers can offer. For more precise manipulation of the screen, a stylus will be created with a tiny tip capable of manipulating parts of the screen perhaps as small as a single pixel.
Awesome Video Chat:
Video chat on the Apple tablet will be an obvious killer feature. Video chat isn't something unique to the tablet of course - smartphones, netbooks, and desktops already offer such capability. What will differentiate the video chat offered on the tablet is mobility and size. You can't easily pickup your clumsy netbook or your stationary desktop PC in the middle of a video chat, but the tablet will make this a breeze. The tablet will allow you to move to conference room G in a building if your coworker kicks you out of conference room B without you having to stop your video session. At home you will be able to show your video counterpart something in another part of the house, or go grab a snack in the kitchen, carrying your handy tablet in tow without interrupting the video session. Beyond mobility, integration with the other applications and software on the tablet will make tablet based video chat an awesome experience.
Amazing expandability with third party devices using standardized ports, such as USB:
If Apple is smart they will use open interfaces such as USB to enable a vibrant ecosystem of third party manufacturers around the globe to create an infinite array of attachments, addons, and upgrades to your Apple tablet. Consumer electron microscopes, printers, high end speaker systems, data storage devices, and all of the other devices that we now connect to our desktops and netbooks should be able to plug into your tablet. But now they will be able to leverage the unique offerings of the tablet, such as GPS, accelerometer, and touch screen - something that traditional desktops and netbooks cannot offer.
Excellent sound quality:
With its larger form factor the Apple tablet will be able to incorporate excellent sound quality right into the device. This type of sound quality simply isn't possible with a tiny iphone today. For even better sound quality, off the shelf speakers will plug right into your tablet, bringing the highest sound quality available right to your tablet for presentations, watching movies, whatever.
Multiple users at the same time:
The iphone, netbook, and desktop computer are not designed for two or more people to work on them simultaneously. I watch youtube videos on my iphone all the time with friends and family, but the tiny screen size makes it inconvenient for even 2 or 3 people to hover around the video at the same time. The large screen of the tablet will fix this.
Collaborative activities where two people are manipulating the screen at the same time will also be an interesting use case. Games could be played with opposing players each protecting their side of the tablet. In certain use cases it may be useful for two people to physically manipulate data, documents, or media at the same time.
Beautiful, Custom Built Operating System And Hardware:
The operating system and hardware powering the tablet will serve as the foundation for all of the features described thus far. Without a beautiful, graceful, intuitive user interface the tablet will fail. Nobody doubts Apple's ability to produce beautiful hardware and software, and in this area the tablet will not disappoint. The OS and user interface for the tablet will be simple to use, gorgeous, and built from the ground up to perform its purpose. The Dells of the world will be forced to adapt the ill-suited Microsoft windows for the creation of their tablet wanna-be contenders - an automatic recipe for failure.
The mythical Apple tablet lies at the nexus of converging trends in mobile devices, touchscreen interfaces, and personalized content anywhere, anytime, and on demand. Therein lies the confusion about the tablet's place in our world but also the beauty of what it will offer.
Amazingly, even though Apple has not officially announced that it is creating a tablet device, the industry has already embraced the idea of the tablet anyway. Just this week Freescale Semiconductor announced plans to launch a tablet PC later this year. Google is rumored to be working on its own competitor. Dell already has a tablet-like device called the XT2 Tablet that is commercially available right now. Dozens of other companies are expected to make tablet announcements this week at the CES 2010 in Las Vegas. 2010 is already the year of the tablet based purely on rumor and speculation alone. It really is an unbelievable phenomenon that we are witnessing unfold.
Too bad for the competition that Apple is going to whip their butts all over the map. Apple has reportedly been working on the tablet for at least a year, possibly two. Whatever dinky products other companies dream up at CES or elsewhere, it will be too little too late.
The Apple tablet is going to be a revolutionary device and I can't wait for it to come into this world. Nevertheless, I am fearful of the powerful grip over our lives that it will deliver to Apple. Google, if you are listening, please save us from a one player market and give us a device and a platform that is every bit as good as Apple's but free of its walled garden. You are our only hope against Apple hegemony!