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Just A Thought
by Vern Seward

Apple Tablet: Alive And Well With Robert Cringely
December 9th, 2003

Hey all of you Apple speculators; you folks who enjoy ruminating over what Jobs and crew will do next to shake things up; I've got a topic for ya that is likely near and dear to your digital hearts: Apple tablets.

Half of you are probably saying, "Damn right! An Apple tablet would make me wet myself! Bring it on."

The other half of you are saying, "Yaaawwnnn! Didn't Apple do that with the Newton 10 years ago and only now is the PC world catching up? Let the idea die peacefully, why don't cha?"

I agree with the group who has no need for Depends; I don't think Apple will ever make another tablet/PDA. I could be wrong, and it won't be the first time. That doesn't mean that I can't dabble in a little weekend engineering.

There's a movie, a cult classic, actually, called The Re-Animator in which some wild-eyed scientist figures out a way put life back into dead flesh. In one scene, he experiments by shooting a syringe full of glowing green serum into a dead cat he'd scraped up off the street. The mangled cat comes back to life and attacks the scientist. It sounds grisly, I know, but it is one of the funniest scenes I've seen outside of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Speaking of which

I bring this up because recently, Robert Cringely, author of the widely read The Pulpit column, wrote a bit about how he believes that Apple will produce a tablet Mac, and he tells how such a device might find relevance in the face of the current poor showing of the Windows-based tablet PCs currently on the market. This flies in the face of Steve Jobs emphatically stating that Apple has, "...no plans to make a tablet." In true Re-Animator form, Mr. Cringely has resurrected the Apple tablet idea, an idea I had thought was a s dead as that cat in the movie, especially after Steve Jobs' pronouncement on the subject. Apparently, there's some life left in the idea after all. (For more information please read Robert Cringely's article Digital Hubris: Apple's Tablet Computer Might Finally Be That Link Between Your PC and TV

Cringely brings up some good points about how Apple might benefit from using a newly proposed ultra broadband, short ranged wireless standard (802.15.3) to connect disparate devices to a tablet from Apple. This tablet would be the video equivalent of an iPod, presumably supported by some sort of iTunes-like software for video, would play high definition video nearly anywhere or push the video to any TV in range. Sweet idea, but there's a lot wrong with it that makes me think that the Apple tablet he describes just won't fly.

Web Portals

For starters, in order for Cringely's Apple Tablet to find an audience there has to be an established base of 802.15.3 compatible devices available, or some way to make current devices compatible. TVs are fairly pricey items and the equipment needed to accept a wireless stream may also be fairly pricey. Just look at how long it took Bluetooth to become relevant. Early adopters will buy it, for sure, but I doubt there'll be enough to jump start a new category of devices. I liken it to the ill-fated web portal devices that industry folks were saying was the next big thing. These Internet access thingies were cheaper than a PC, but they also had reduced functionality. People bought them, but not enough to prime a device category, and so the idea died.

Even PC Tablets, billed as the next stage in the evolution of personal computing, has thus far found only an extremely limited niche. Of course, it doesn't help matters that PC tablets are based on your average desktop PC running a Microsoft OS. I've fiddled briefly with these tablets and I came away thinking that they were neat toys, but I could find no reason for the average Joe or Jill to be compelled to buy one. And therein lies the problem, and the possible reason for Jobs to eats his words about no Apple tablets.

Looking for reasons

I find that I can come up with several functions that are ideal for an Apple branded tablet that would elicit user responses ranging from, "Neat-o," to "OH GAWD! GIMME A TABLET NOW!"

Cringely's solution adds some really cool functionality to tablets, but that is still no reason for folks to plop down hard earn dineros; these tablets must hit the ground running, if you'll pardon the cliche. There must be something useful already built into a Mac that lends itself to using a tablet, something that will drive the sales of the tablet like iTunes and iTMS drives iPod sales. Videos, in and of itself, is not enough to do it. Unlike music, video requires your undivided attention whereas most people can enjoy music while doing other things. Cringely's Apple tablet, therefore, must do more than be an iPod for videos.

Well, if I put on my thinking cap and consider all of the parts and pieces available to Apple's crack designers to make a tablet, then ponder on what possible uses such pieces and parts in the form of a tablet could be put to, I find that I can come up with several functions that are ideal for an Apple branded tablet that would elicit user responses ranging from, "Neat-o," to "OH GAWD! GIMME A TABLET NOW!"

Games, iSight, iChat

Fer instance: Using this new close range broadband wireless standard so that tablet and Mac are in constant contact, imagine a extremely mobile high resolution screen/monitor that is relatively cheap (say, $300) but offers you a full interface with your Mac while you sunbathe by the pool. Maybe add a wireless keyboard, use Inkwell and a stylus to input info directly into your Mac.

How about having a gaming interface where several people can virtually play the same game by using a game tablet device; something with handles, buttons, and a thumb-joystick. Your tablet would show high-res game graphics, possible due to the copious bandwidth of 802.15.3. Think Halo on steroids.

And what would you say to a really cool Voice and Video over IP based on Apple's iSight/iChat combo? Your Mac stays put, plugged into you DSL or cable broadband service, you have several Apple tablets outfitted with iSight cameras ( you can afford several because they're cheap), and you can make or receive voice and picture calls anywhere in your house, just like the Jetsons did. You don't have to be stuck sitting in front of your Mac, you can now roam your home and keep up the conversation. Sure, you can do the same thing with a PowerBook or iBook, but they are pricey overkill when all you want or need is a good video interface.

Imagine plugging your future 80GB iPod into an Apple tablet to watch videos, then streaming the vids to your Mac and onto other tablets around the house.

All of my examples have one thing in common, besides being my examples; the tablet augments and enhances features of existing Apple products, giving the tablet relevance and a footholds into existing markets, and footholds are the key to any possible success. In other words, give the device a purpose people can see and they will buy it.

Reshaping the Mac in the shape of a...On second thought

You've probably noticed that I call this device an Apple tablet: I refuse to call the it a Mac tablet because that implies that it is basically a reshaped Mac, and I think that would be a mistake. A tablet from Apple does not need to run OS X, that would be like strapping a rocket to your Chevy. (I know. I can't seem to get that story out of my head.) Instead the Apple tablet (I'm not calling it iTablet either, maybe iFrame, or iBeam) would run something much simpler, maybe micro-Linux or a condensed version of Darwin with some Aqua APIs built in. It just needs to do video exceptionally well, like the iPod handles music.

Of course, from my armchair, this all sounds great, but the question is: Does it sound great to Steve "...no plans to make a tablet," Jobs? If you believe the source Cringely points to, then Apple already has a tablet sitting the the chute. If that's true, then the Apple Tablet is a slam-dunk in Jobs' mind and he's making some mashed potatoes and gravy as a side dish to the words he must eat at some future keynote. If it isn't then maybe we can, at last, bury the idea of an Apple tablet finally. At least until someone else injects the idea with some glowing green goo.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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