"You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself"
Rumors take hold and persist for reasons. Tidbits from Asian suppliers, leaks from "sources familiar with the matter," and intelligent surmise about the competitive state in the industry have all combined to create a lasting drum beat for the Apple iPad -- or iPod super touch -- or iTablet -- or MacBook touch -- or Media Pad -- you name it. However, what if Apple's vision, driven my the marketplace, turns out to be something entirely different than what we expected?
Based on what we know, Apple is reluctant to get into the Netbook market. These are cheap systems that use last generation parts to keep the price down. Much has been written about how Apple just doesn't want to undercut the craftsmanship and power of its Aluminum MacBooks.
Apple MacBook (unibody, late 2008)
On the low end, Apple has consistently argued that an iPhone and iPod touch can do everything that's required in terms of communicating, e-mail, Web surfing, and, well, 40,000 other activities and apps that round out those products. And it's fairly clear that Apple has big plans for the multi-touch interface combined with new hardware technologies down the road. However, we also know that when Apple suggests that the iPhone or iPod touch is the proper substitute for the netbook, the company is just buying time to develop its own vision.
Apple iPod touch 2G (Sep 2008)
That explains to me the delay in introducing the rumored iPad. Apple is preparing a product that will be unexpected and hard to interpret at first. That implies risk, so the trick will be to get it right the first time.
Apple's iPod shuffle 3G, with its minimalist and confusing controls has been condemned by many. What was wrong with the explicit controls of the 2G model? Others have argued that customers simply accept what ever Apple provides. That's a clue abut how Apple is thinking.
Millions of kids love being connected, chatting, texting, tweeting, but they can't afford a 24 month plan at US$79/month.
Apple and a few partners have laid the groundwork for a new kind of behavior on the Internet. Snack videos, newsbits and the Borg mind created by millions of people connected on Twitter makes it less and less essential to be working with Microsoft Word and Excel. To be sure, many technical professionals will be sitting at their desks, immersed in spreadsheets, and that's what the PC market, with its 90 percent market share, is designed to do. But Apple isn't interested in competing there, so the next generation devices won't need the same kind of OS infrastructure.
A good example is the Apple TV. It has Mac OS X, a hard disk, a video subsystem and HDMI out. But who would want to run PowerPoint on it?
The Next Generation
The current Apple products, desktops and notebooks, have the Apple II as their progenitors, and the iPhone is descended from the first cell phones. They are essentially Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs, designed by the baby boomers.
On the other hand, Wi-Fi is so dominant that some have wondered why it isn't a public utility like water and electricity. It's a natural medium for young people, and while adults are accustomed to having a phone number, younger people are accustomed to having an address on the Internet, whether its Facebook or Twitter, Friendster or MySpace.
And while many would consider it reasonable to pay nearly US$500 for a Kindle DX that does nothing but display books, Apple's ambitions and vision are far higher.
As a result, in my opinion, the next generation device that's been in the rumor mills for a long time will be a hard animal to assess. It will be off-putting to many observers. It won't be the ideal toy for the baby boomer; rather, it it will fulfill a specific need for an emerging market that Apple has come to recognize. It will be unexpected and brilliant. It will change the way we work and think. It could well be the first Apple product current analysts can't understand and can't use well at first.
Media Pad Concept. Credit: MacFormat
So far, I've presented what we all know about Apple's current products, its philosophy, modern technology and the competition: the netbooks and the Kindle. Defining a new product category with breakthrough appeal is a lot tougher. Perhaps one can back into it. Note: the following list is devised as food for thought to get to the next level of product definition. It's not the definition of the complete product.
- It won't compete with the iPhone and AT&T 3G services.
- It won't diminish the brand of the MacBook, just as the original Mac took years to supplant the Apple II.
- It will be a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth device only.
- It will use multi-touch.
- It will have a modest SSD.
- It won't be a device to look at a Mac's desktop from afar because messing with a desktop Mac is irrelevant for the target user.
- It will be very good at playing video.
- Its purpose will be to bring multiple channels of communication, via Wi-Fi, to a common point, not to create content, find a lost car, or maintain travel receipts.
- However, it will run iPhone/iPod touch apps.
- The screen size will be dictated by the intended audience, gamers, new doctors, students, teachers, sports enthusiasts, and researchers. Perhaps a 6 to 7 inch screen. Too big to take to lunch or on a business trip. Something that tends to lay on the table, be moved around here and there, but doesn't tend to hang on the body or replace a MacBook Air for travel. It'll tend to wind up on the coffee table or lab desk or in a student's backpack.
- It will be strong at collecting and displaying news, magazine content, e-mail, tweets, Hulu, iChat with video.
- It won't have a still camera facing outbound, but will have a movie-grade camera facing the user for video chats. Moms will love it.
- Like the iPhone, it will have a virtual keyboard but can connect via Bluetooth to an Apple keyboard.
- The display technology won't be optimized for books, like the Kindle, but it will be a capable book reader, especially text books. The display will be good enough for many users.
- It will have one or more new, unexpected features that the extra interior room affords. Say, an air quality analyzer or something that gives it a green or unique appeal.
- It will have a secure locator beacon on Wi-Fi so that it can be found if lost or stolen.
- It won't be cheap and won't diminish the value proposition of an iPod touch.
- Special Agents Timothy McGee, Abby Sciuto ("NCIS") and Olivia Dunham ("Fringe") won't go anywhere without it.
Over and above this list, there will still be unexpected features. Despite the proposed feature set presented by MacFormat at the concept link above, which suggests that it will be a conventional device, I suspect it won't be conventional at all. So the list is just a starting point for deeper pondering.
Expecting the Unexpected
All the above is just an guess, and it's also intended to get a discussion going. So I have a proposal for you. Formulate, in the comments below, not the expected or desired features I've covered, but the unusual, surprising, delightful, perplexing features such a device might have. Assume that it will be misunderstood at first, but will be something that takes the world by surprise and takes Apple down a different path.