Sunday, July 26, 2009

Apple Tablet: Small Mac, or Big iPhone?

There are rumors circulating that Apple will be releasing a tablet device sometime early next year.  There are certainly a lot of Apple fans that are very excited about such a device, even though they don’t even know what it will be.  (Can you think of anyone besides Apple that can get people excited about something that doesn’t even exist (and hasn’t even been announced) yet?)

There is very little information to go on at this point.  The rumors seem to be indicating that it will be a 10.1” touch screen device priced around $799.  Other than that we really don’t know much, including what it will do, or even whether it would run a full version of OS X or a modified version of the iPhone OS.  There is a rumor that the device will have some sort of cellular radio for Internet connectivity as well, but again, none of this is confirmed.

But even amidst Apple’s perpetual silence on future devices, I think there is a lot about it that we can conclude, should such a device actually come to pass.

The pricing alone could tell us a lot.  If it is priced at $799, it is $200 below the price of the white MacBook.  And about $200 over the selling price of the iPhone (price to carriers, not consumers). That alone tells me that the device will be one of two things: either it’s going to be a lobotomized netbook, or a large multimedia device.

I come to that conclusion based on the products that Apple already has in its lineup.  Think about this: the current Mac “netbook” is the MacBook Air.  In a lot of ways it is much like the PC netbooks that are on the market: small device, lightweight, low power, missing devices like optical drives and myriads of connectivity.  In fact the specifications on PC netbooks aren’t that far off of the MacBook Air, aside from the 13” screen that the Air offers where the screens on netbooks are usually 9-10”.  (Even the CPU isn’t that different between the two.)  An Apple netbook would have to be essentially a smaller, even more stripped down version of the Air at a lower price.

But we know that the device will have a touch screen.  That adds to the cost of a device.  And Apple won’t be happy if it doesn’t support multi-touch, and multi-touch capable touch devices are more expensive than the touch screens used on Tablet PCs.  For Apple to be able to release an OS X-powered computer that offers decent performance, plus a multi-touch touch screen, the price is going to be somewhere near where the MacBook Air is now, if not higher.  Nobody would buy it.

The other problem with trying to go the OS X route is that OS X just isn’t designed for a touch screen interface.  I develop software for touch screens and have learned a lot about what works and what does not work.  Menu bars, like the one that stays at the top of the screen all of the time in OS X, are totally unusable on touch screens.  Buttons, in order to be clickable, must be at least 3/4” wide and high.  A typical button in the OS X user interface would only be about 3/8” high on a 10.1” screen, making them too hard to press accurately.  A screen that size is simply WAY too small to even consider doing general purpose computing.  Even the 15” screens we use as part of my business are too small for that without software being designed specifically for that application.  Applications on OS X are not.

This, of course, ignores the fact that a tablet device lacks a keyboard.  Much of what people do on computers is based on having a keyboard.  People, especially Mac users, use their computers to browse the Internet, read email, write documents, edit photos, listen to music, and watch and create videos.  As we have seen with the iPhone, browsing the internet can be done on a keyboard-less touch screen device, but it is usefulness is limited.  Composing email without a keyboard is totally impractical.  And editing photos and creating video are both difficult (at best) on a low resolution screen, especially when the likely low capacity hard drive of the device is considered.  That leaves us with browsing (sometimes), watching video, and listening to music.  What does that list of activities sound like?  Yep.  There’s your iPod Touch/iPhone functionality.

Yes, I know the iPhone has an on-screen keyboard.  And that works okay for creating short text messages, or even short emails.  But for composing larger emails or documents, a touch keyboard just won’t do.  People like having the tactile feedback of actual keys to press when typing, especially as keyboards become larger than the screen on an iPhone.  A decent size on-screen keyboard on a tablet would fill more than half of a 10” screen, and that doesn’t leave any sort of room for software to run.  You couldn’t even rest your fingers on the screen because the act of just touching the screen would activate the capacitive touch sensor, so you’re left hovering your hands above the display.  This becomes very tiring very quickly.  Short of the tablet device being a netbook with a real keyboard, I just can’t see Apple trying to run OS X on a device this size. 

I think the prospects of an Apple tablet being based on the iPhone OS, however, are much higher than something based on OS X.  Nearly everything sort of falls in line with what we know. 

Since tablet devices are, by their very nature, touch-based, it would make a lot more sense for Apple to start with a product that is already based on touch.  OS X is not, and it would take a major overhaul of not only the OS but all of the applications that run on it to work in a touch screen environment.  The iPhone OS, on the other hand, is totally designed around a touch screen.  Touch, swipe, pinch; all of these are the fundamental operations that take place on a touch device and they’re already supported on the iPhone. 

One of the problems with the iPhone and iPod Touch is the small screen.  Watching videos on something that small is not fun, especially if you are trying to share content with someone else.  You can’t comfortably have a group of friends crowd around an iPhone to watch a video; it makes a lot more sense to take turns.  Or for Apple to release a device with a larger screen. 

An iPhone-like device with a 10” screen could be a very good multimedia player.  It’s big enough for the kids to watch in the back seat of the minivan.  Or large enough to watch a video comfortably on an airplane.  Or perhaps even large enough to become an ebook reader that competes with the Amazon Kindle.  (Yeah, battery life wouldn’t be as good, but I think most people are used to charging their electronics every night anyway.)

Creating such a device wouldn’t be without its own set of hurdles, though.  Something with a 10” screen absolutely has to have a higher resolution screen than the iPhone, so all of those apps in the App Store aren’t going to work without significant reworking to fit the larger screen (or look absolutely horrendous after being blown up to fill the larger display).  So should the mysterious Apple tablet be iPhone-based, expect that it will be limited to off-the-shelf iPhone capabilities for a while after release until developers have a chance to rewrite their software to fit the new screen.  But it would surely have music and video playback as well as web browsing built-in from the start.

But one of the biggest indicators to me that something like this will be iPhone OS-based is that Apple has a hole in their lineup of multimedia devices.  You can listen to music and watch videos on tiny devices like the iPods and iPhone, or something big like a computer monitor or TV by using the Apple TV.  There is a class of devices between the iPod and computer that is missing.  Apple wants to sell you iTunes content, but they don’t have anything that competes with portable DVD players.  The largest portable device (aside from laptops) for watching iTunes video is the iPhone. 

Also consider this… there are rumors that Apple is in talks with Verizon for a partnership for mobile data for the tablet device.  $799 might be a little steep for the average consumer.  But if the device were to be tied to a mobile data plan (like the iPhone is), that $799 might come down to $299 or $399 with Verizon contract.  That puts the out-the-door price right in line with the iPod Touch and Apple TV, and iPhone.  All of which target the same demographic they are already catering to.

I really don’t see Apple releasing a device based on OS X if it is strictly a touch screen.  And such a device certainly wouldn’t cost $799.  There is already a Mac-based device with a tablet display, the Axiotron Modbook.  It’s very expensive, and its only interesting to a very small segment of the market.  A $799 multimedia device is much more appealing to a nearly infinitely larger group of people.

The other thing that really leads me to believe that this will be a multimedia device rather than a computer is that tablet computing is not something that the masses are interested in just yet.  Microsoft’s Tablet PC features are very well implemented in Vista and Windows 7 and yet those devices are only being picked up by a very select group of people.  Outside of the world of doctors, salespeople, and maybe a few in the construction industry, a tablet computer just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  And among that group, a device at $799 might as well be $1999; they’ll pay whatever it costs.  Trying to target people for a $799 tablet just doesn’t make a lot of sense for Apple or its shareholders, especially considering how much they like their premium product markup. 

Since Apple likes to charge a 50-100% premium for their products, we ought to look at what’s in the market that would compete with a $799 product.  Yes, netbooks fall into that category, but not tablet PCs.  The other thing we find in that segment would be… you guessed it, portable video devices.

All of this coupled with the total lack of rumors or information leaks of Apple’s upcoming Snow Leopard having any sort of support for a touch-based Mac, and the rumors of an unidentified device running the iPhone OS lead me to believe that there is absolutely no way that a touch screen 10” tablet device is going to be running OS X as we know it now.  Aside from creating a brand new OS family for such a device, the only choice Apple has is to base something on the iPhone OS.  It makes perfect sense, while all of the other possible options just defy logic.

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