Tablet Thoughts

| Just a Thought

It seems all but assured that Apple will produce a tablet device during their media event on January 27. Unless The Jobs Crew have taken total leave of their collective senses, we can expect it to be at least very interesting and at best something we’d consider selling blood and body parts to get. (No allusion or pun intended towards Mr. Jobs.)

OK, so let’s say we all want one and we all dutifully stand in line when the product is launched to be the first on our block to own Apple’s latest shiny-shiny.

Then what?

When the iPod first came out it was aimed at a very distinct market: music lovers. It was presumed that people already had the music they wanted to take with them. Remember, the iTunes Store didn’t come until much later. Apple actively encouraged us to rip our music and play it on iPods, and we did.

The iPhone was aimed at wannabe smartphone users, people who wanted something more than just a cellphone, but something decidedly less than a laptop. Core features were defined and emphasized when the iPhone was announced and immediately the average Joe and Jill recognized its potential. While tech-heads complained about the lack of cut-n-paste and other missing features (including yours truly) work-a-day Don and Daisy marveled at how easy it was to get useful information when they needed it, almost where ever they needed it.

Both the iPod and iPhone defined their markets. What sort of market might a tablet from Apple define?

The most talked about answer is printed media. It’s assumed that an Apple tablet will do for newspapers and magazines what the iPod did for music, that is, make it more accessible, and therefore, more marketable.

When the iPod was introduced there were already a good sized list of personal music players on the market and the iPod, all by itself, really didn’t improve on things that much except in two key areas: user interface and music accessibility.

The basic concept behind the iPod was to put as little in the way of the user and his music as possible, and if you had to be in the way, make it enjoyable. So Apple made the iPod as touch-friendly, yet as simple, as possible.

The click-wheel was fun. You picked up the iPod and in seconds you could find and play music. No tiny buttons to find and press, no joystick thingies to master; just click, twirl, click and music happens.

The iPhone was a bit more complicated, but Apple managed to distill the user experience down to the same basic element as with the original iPod: touch. This time they went virtual. They defined some basic touch-gestures (tap, swipe, pinch, spread) and made the core features work with them.

Watch any iPhone commercial and it’s easy to see how simple the interface is. People who think operating a DVD player is best left to the Ph.Ds, after seeing an iPhone commercial or playing with one, likely said to themselves, “Hey! I can do this!”

With Apple’s latest creation waiting in the wings I gotta wonder what have they done to make this new fangled device accessible, therefore desirable.

Well, I think it’s safe to assume that the new device will be a tablet of some sort, which is cool and all, but nothing to get rabidly excited about. We can assume that it will sport a touch interface similar to, if not exactly like, those on the iPhone and iPod touch. Again, cool, but yawn inducing. We can also assume that there will be some sort of connectivity to the Internet, iTunes, and the iTunes Store. All basic stuff. There’s a growing number of devices that can fit that bill already.

Being a big iPod touch is not enough. The bigger screen makes reading easier and offers more real estate for content creators to play in, but that, in and of itself, is still not enough to set this new device off. Being a big iPhone borders on silly since the device isn’t pocketable. Being a smallish touch screen MacBook has a certain appeal, but won’t excite the masses.

I’ve thought about this for sometime now and the only thing that I can see where Apple can blow away the competition and people’s minds at the same time is connectivity. Being able not just to look at files, applications, or multimedia remotely, but to do it in a way that lets the average Joe or Jane think, “Hey! I can do that!” is likely the key to the success of this new device.

First, the screen is big enough to do something real. Accessing movies and reading magazines is nice, but you can do that on existing devices. Accessing MY movies and magazines with a few swipes or pokes of my finger makes it pretty darn interesting. Maybe we’ll even be able to run some Mac or PC based apps in a “virtual machine” so that real work and play can happen.

Am I talking about “Cloud Computing?” Yes, but in a way that no other computer maker can provide. Let’s call it the "Apple-Sphere." This new tablet will likely be our window into this Apple-Sphere, but it will be more than just a window; we be able to do stuff we really want to do.

The Apple-Sphere could contain content from major sources, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, for instance. Movies, music and content we’ve created could be just as accessible. So, with a swipe or poke I could be reading GQ, watching The Hangover, finishing up the latest Grisham novel, join an online frag-fest, or put the final touches on a presentation. We could do it simply, securely, no matter where we are.

Remember, Apple controls the whole widget. They are the only ones who can create a virtual experience that is secure, easy to use, readily accessible, and useful. Google and Microsoft may both offer similar experiences, but neither can do it now or do it with the same panache as Apple.

An Apple-Sphere will do exactly what Apple needs it to do; it can make any manner of content more accessible, therefore more desirable, and therefore more marketable.

The details, the hows and whys and whens I wouldn’t try to speculate on -- besides, we’ll know for sure tomorrow. Regardless of whether the Apple-Sphere exists or not, Apple will need to do something to make this new tablet device take off like a rocket. That’s how they did it with the iPod and iPhone, and it’s worked out well so far.

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Comments

aardman

I think you’re on to something there.  I predicted three years ago that someday we will all live our lives inside iTunes.  Your Apple-sphere is just iTunes following its obvious evolutionary path.  I mean, let’s not forget Apple’s billion-dollar server mega-farm that nobody knows yet what it’s for and, to use a rapidly tiring old phrase, connect the dots.

John Doe

Perhaps that would put the Cloud Computing in iWork also to a level of desirable usability!
That one is surprisingly idle to date….

Niel

Keep in mind that the iPod and iPhone were huge hits with both Mac users AND PC users because iTunes was a common application on both platforms.  iTunes was the conduit.  Enjoying music, video, ebooks, etc through the “Apple-Sphere” while sitting at home would be fairly easy with the software already in place.  Anything beyond that is going to require a adding a new piece to the puzzle - a huge update to MobileMe - that will support both platforms equally.

Tardis

“When the iPod first came out ..... Remember, the iTunes Store didn?t come until much later.”

Of course, Apple’s iTunes music software for the Mac came out before the iPod, after Steve Jobs realised “I was such a dope” for not understanding the importance of digital music. After the iPod came iTunes for Windows and after that the iTunes Store.

Every step of that journey has built on the last, and tomorrow’s “joy and surprise” product will be built on the foundation of the revelation that brought digital music software to the original iMac.

My guess is that the “Apple-Sphere” iTunes data centre will contain not only data from major sources like the New York Times or Movies, but whatever you the user decide to upload to it, including blobby paint job art pieces like the artwork on the Apple Invitation.

Chris Miller

I think it’s worthwhile taking into account the recent comments we’ve seen reported on recently about the amazing way(s) you interact with the upcoming device and thinking back on technologies described in the various patent applications and grants that have been reported on over the past few years:

Screen elements functioning both as pixel display and pixel-level nanocameras that combine via software into image capture devices analogous to a fly’s eye, and able via appropriate software to reconstruct a 3D image. Combine this with the screen-flash used in Photo Booth and I can imagine using the device as a portable scanner. Combine this with the patent claims for a 3D desktop and you can see how the device would be able to interact with the user based on changes in the angle and position of the screen sensed both by motion sensors and face-sensing technology (already there in iPhoto) to adjust the display as you move the screen and/or your face around. Imagine the ways this can be used for games and for 3D visualisation and interaction in other kinds of software!

Multitouch gestures including a virtual on-screen keyboard split in two with the halves angled and centred on the lower corners of the device. Screen-based typing when it is laid flat, perhaps with solid elements raised to simulate the feel of keycaps when the screen senses the fingers in typing position. Enabling multitouch typing on the back when the tablet is held in two hands: four fingers is enough, with the pinkies hitting the “spacebar” instead of the thumbs. All you need is a subtle but permanent tactile “home row” or “f/j keys” feedback indicator, perhaps slight ridges or a different, rubber-like texture in the proper position… Navigating via multitouch on the back by swipes of the side of your finger while you hold the ‘Book.

These are just two areas where Apple has described these self-same technologies in their patent applications, or already use them in more rudimentary form in some cases. I think they will astonish us tomorrow with what we can do with the device, and the ways we can do it. Things we have not seen done yet, but nonetheless things that they have indirectly telling us that they are planning to do and have been developing the technology to do.

This is why ? if the quote is accurate ? I can well imagine Steve Jobs thinking of this as the most important thing he has ever done.

Tony Ulwick

Some interesting comments here and good points. For the Apple Tablet to be successful, it must help customers get important “jobs” done that they cannot get done effectively on today’s laptops or iPhones. It must be a game changer. And it must offer a new interface. When Apply has done these things, they’ve been wildly successful. You can read about my thoughts in more detail by visting my blog post at http://blog.strategyn.com/?p=39.

Vern Seward

To Chris Miller: While all of that you’ve pointed to would be nice, I just don’t see any of it seeing the light of day any time soon. It’s all doable, but to do it would cost a lot and the end product would be too expensive for any but the geeks with the deepest pockets. I think there will be some cool technology shown tomorrow, just not that cool.

But what do I know? You could be dead on.

Vern

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