Will a Tablet Replace My MacBook?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

With Apple’s tablet-revealing media event now set for January 27, the speculation about the exact nature of this new device will (thankfully!) soon be over. However, unless every rumor that has been published thus far is wrong, one thing is certain already: The tablet will be based on the iPhone OS. In other words, the tablet will be more akin to a super-sized iPhone than a scaled-down Mac. (To be clear, this does not mean that the tablet will be merely a super-sized iPhone, any more than the iPhone turned out to be merely an iPod with a phone.)

The big still-wide-open question is what market demand will this new device meet? Of special interest to me in this regard is: Will the tablet be capable of acting as a smaller lighter-weight replacement for my MacBook Pro?

I hope so. I’d love it if I no longer needed to lug along my MacBook. But to fulfill this hope, a tablet needs to overcome a few hurdles. One hurdle it need not overcome is to serve as my only computer. Although many people use a laptop as their only Mac, I don’t. I have a Mac Pro on my desk. It is my workhorse, my primary computer; it is what I am using right now to write this article. I use my MacBook Pro mainly just while on the road — for conventions, User Group meetings, vacations, or almost any extended trip.

As such, I don’t need my MacBook Pro (or a potential tablet replacement) to be able to do everything I can do with my Mac Pro. This is what allows the tablet to pass its first hurdle. Given that the tablet is based on the iPhone OS, it is certain that it will not be able to run many of the applications I regularly use on my Mac Pro: Microsoft Office’s Word, Adobe’s Photoshop, iLife’s GarageBand, and iWork’s Numbers — to name a few. But that’s okay.

The main thing my portable computer, whatever it is, needs to be able to do is handle my email checking and Web browsing. As I find that my iPhone is already capable of doing this in most situations, it is certain that any iPhone OS-based tablet will be able to do so as well. So far, so good.

However, the tablet also needs to be able to handle a couple of other key tasks. It is at this point that things begin to get a bit sticky.

On vacations, I often transfer photos from my digital camera to my MacBook Pro. The iPhone OS currently does not support doing this, but I can easily imagine this capability included in a tablet-based iPhone OS 4.0. I think this hurdle will be surmounted.

Where the tablet really begins to struggle is when I need a computer for giving presentations. I can imagine a Keynote Player app that would allow me to run slideshows created on my Mac. I doubt it would have the muscle to support all of Keynote’s special effects, but I could live with that. But what if I needed to edit a Keynote document while on the road? Or what if I wanted to do a live demo of a Mac application, an application that does not even run on the tablet? For that matter, could I even attach a tablet device to a VGA projector? And even if I could, would I be able to mirror the tablet’s display over the projector (something that is not even remotely possible with the current iPhone, unless you jailbreak it, as I have discussed previously). Taken together, these limitations seems insurmountable for now. For giving presentations, I am certain I will still be using a MacBook for some time to come.

There remains one other primary need for my portable computing device: I need to be able to create and edit text documents. Not just brief notes, but relatively long articles, such as the one you are now reading. I often work on these articles while traveling. Without this capability, a tablet will not suffice. To meet this requirement, the tablet would need to include a text editor at least as capable as Mac OS X’s TextEdit. It would also need a text input method that is better than the iPhone’s virtual keyboard (a topic explored in more detail in a Macworld article by Dan Moren). My preference here would be for the tablet to work with a detached physical keyboard as well as with an on-screen virtual keyboard. With this arrangement, I could leave the physical keyboard in my hotel room while I carry around the tablet during the day, connecting the keyboard to get more serious work done back in my room in the evening.

How would such a keyboard “connect” to the tablet? I vote for Bluetooth. Unfortunately, Apple has thus far blocked almost all Bluetooth features in the iPhone OS (other than for headsets, peer-to-peer connectivity in games, and Internet tethering). Using Bluetooth for file or data transfer is strictly off-limits. Apple similarly has prohibited any third-party SDK for any kind of keyboard, Bluetooth or otherwise. If there is to be a separate physical keyboard for the tablet, Apple intends to be the the sole provider of the SDK supporting it. I am cautiously optimistic Apple will do so, but I am not holding my breath.

Similar hurdles exist if you expect to print documents from the tablet (as I will cover in detail my next column).

Bottom line: I have my fingers crossed that Steve Jobs and company have considered and resolved most of these obstacles. With any luck, next week’s tablet announcement will signal the beginning of the end of my need for a MacBook Pro.

Comments

Apple Jedi

I think this would probably solve most of your issues:
http://gizmodo.com/339918/apple-docking-patent-works-perfectly-with-ultra+slim-macbook
I’m surprised this patent hasn’t been talked about more in recent weeks.

Tiger

Well considering a MacPro would do pretty much everything a MacBook Pro will, just a little slower, the only people who actually NEED a MacBook Pro are those doing video editing.

That being said, it’s doubtful a tablet/iPad, whatever they call it, will replace either laptop. It’s more of a Newton on Steroids. It seems like it would be more than just a little frustrating trying to edit a PPT presentation on it, much less do anything in InDesign or Quark for an actual publication. Graphics manipulation will be workable, though special effects programs will be pretty much useless. I am still suspect of what combination of processor, video card, and bus speed that Apple can put into a tablet PC that won’t just eat battery and disappoint the user.

Ted Landau

That being said, it?s doubtful a tablet/iPad, whatever they call it, will replace either laptop.

I don’t mean to sound rude, but your comments make it seem that you did not actually read my article. I made it clear that I was talking about replacing a MacBook only for someone like me—who does not use their MacBook as their only computer and does not need it for the sorts of tasks you are describing. Read especially paragraphs 3 and 4.

Chas

I believe you’re about to be somewhat disappointed.  The purpose of this upcoming tablet isn’t to sell more copies of MS Office or even iWork.  It’s to sell movies/videos and more apps.  (IM not so HO)
 
Even if most all of the now 3 billion App Store downloads are free apps, that 30% of the rest is pure gravy for Apple.  Apple is looking for this tablet to succeed where the _Apple TV_ hasn’t.

CTOatGFU

Accurate assessment of what the tablet needs to provide a for mobile computing with a home or office base station. I am the CIO of a university that gives all incoming freshman a Macbook. The computing trends of students does not justify the expense of giving out Macbooks anymore so we are very hopeful that the tablet establishes itself as a more practical academic computing tool. Students want greater portability with some of the same desires you outline. The ability to deal with text documents is big, but Google Apps may be good enough. I would also hope for support of iLife apps as we are seeing greater use of multi-media digital writing.

zewazir

I think your desires for a tablet-only travel machine falls apart at the potential need to edit presentations. If the (probable) upcoming Apple tablet is, indeed, limited to the iPhone OS, I do not see it even able to open the keynote application to show presentations, let alone edit them. One could potentially get away with converting a presentation to quick time or HTML: something that is read-only friendly to simple applications to run, thus bypassing the need to actually open the keynote application to present the show. But, no, if you want the ability to run full-fledged Mac applications, I’d say the best you can hope for is the MacBook Air.

Unless the tablet has some surprises in capability, that is….

dwallin

I do not see it even able to open the keynote application to show presentations, let alone edit them.

Or of course if iWork online has improved to the extent of being able to be run on the new device… That would fix it for me.

Montresor

I’ve been hearing some noise about a cloud-based version of iWork. Perhaps this solves that part of the equation for you. To me, it’s the input part of the equation that seems tricky - I could easily see Jobs dictating “Thou shalt not use a physical keyboard”. That being said, he’s also eminently practical - I don’t think he’s opposed to all physical keyboards - just physical keyboards on phones. If there is a cloud-based iWork tied to a tablet, I would find it odd that you wouldn’t at least have the option to use a physical keyboard with it.

I’d also caution against judging the tablet on its immediately available feature set. It’s possible that - much like the iPhone - its full power didn’t become apparent until after its ecosystem evolved some.

aardman

You might be disappointed this time around but in 5-10 years that big MacPro box that sits right next to your desk will be replaced by the smart phone that you carry around in your pocket.  You will also be able to buy a mobile screen-and-keyboard console that will connect to same smartphone to become your ‘laptop’.

cfoxy

With the Macbook becoming the Macbook Pro, why not call the new tablet “Macbook Touch”.  After all it will probably replace the cheaper Macbook sold to education which I think will be the case.  Whatever it will be called, I believe that the device will be the most important Apple has produced since the original Mac.  Let’s hope it will have improved accessibility features found in the iPhone 3GS and can run a full version of OSX.

rabber

There may be an acceptable way of dealing with the editing of a presentation. First of all, there are ways to transfer files from your computer to an iPhone. There are other apps that allow you to “log in” to your computer - LogMeIn is an example. It isn’t free - I think the app is 29.95 plus there amy or may not be an annual fee. However, this would allow you to log in to your home computer, edit the file and then transfer it back tot eh tablet for showing.

I have used LogMeIn to run programs on my computer from another computer. Even accessing the office computer from a poor internet connection in China and running SolidWorks, a very computational intensive program, is very doable. I have not tried it from the iPhone and wouldn’t want to due to the small screen size. However, a tablet would be a very different animal.

The remaining issues are as follows:
1. How to show the presentation from the tablet. None of what I have described will help with that.
2. You are dependent upon an internet connection 3G or WiFi. I do not think this is an issue, but it will prevent you from editing the presentation in some locations and, if data plans go to a pay as you go, this could become expensive.

iJack

”..unless every rumor that has been published thus far is wrong, one thing is certain already: The tablet will be based on the iPhone OS.”

Did I miss the defining rumor?

I have read rumors stating iPhone OS, OS X, and both OS’s.

Ted Landau

I have read rumors stating iPhone OS, OS X, and both OS?s.

Apparently, you are more rumor-informed than I am. I have not read any rumors suggesting Mac OS X, at least not for the last few months.

Ted Landau

Several of you made comments suggesting that the solution to running Mac-like software on an iPhone OS-based tablet is the “cloud”—Web apps etc. that you access over the Internet.

I agree. I indeed believe this is a coming trend - and we may see it advanced in iLife ‘10. I have been working on a column on this subject—but it’s still likely a few weeks away.

Lancashire-Witch

Will the tablet be capable of acting as a smaller lighter-weight replacement for my MacBook Pro?.... I’d love it if I no longer needed to lug along my MacBook.

Ted - it seems to me that your MacBook Pro has all the functionality you require; but you have a bit of a problem with its weight/size.

So my $0.02 response to your headline question is - ‘No, but a MacBook Air could. It would be easier on your shoulders if not your wallet - and do everything you need.’

I really can’t see a tablet running on iPhone OS excelling at doing what you need - although it might come close in the cloud.

Either this new creation is going to be a lemon (it’s happened before) or a game-changing, earth-shattering, blow-away-the competition ten inch wonder machine. Not long to wait now!

Ted Landau

I’ve thought about a MacBook Air. To some extent, it’s a psychological barrier for me. I have trouble paying more money for something that is less capable (except for its weight advantage) than the Pro alternative.

Even so, I expect the tablet to be significantly smaller and no heavier than the Air. Plus, if the tablet can do all sorts of great things that the Air cannot (such as being a Kindle-competing e-reader), that would add to its attraction.

Still, the Air remains a possibility.

u2mr2os2

The iPhone runs OS X. It’s not “Mac” OS X, but that’s the different UI and other parts the phone doesn’t need. On a device with enough RAM, I don’t see why you couldn’t run iLife and iWork apps as long as they had a Cocoa Touch UI. The iPhone SDK is just building OS X apps for ARM instead of Intel. No reason it couldn’t build other apps as long as they stuck to the Cocoa APIs supported and didn’t have Intel specific code.

You won’t be running your current version of your favorite Mac app on the tablet, but it will probably be relatively easy for the developer to build a tablet version. The down side is that version will almost certainly need to be downloaded from the app store with a separate purchase. Good news is that it is likely that iPhone apps will work if developers update them to support both devices.

Ted Landau

The iPhone runs OS X. It?s not ?Mac? OS X…

Yup. That is 100% true. In theory, it is thus entirely possible that iLife/iWork software could be modified to under the iPhone OS. However, there are enough differences between the OS versions (and their user interfaces ??as well as all the hardware differences between Macs vs iPhone-devices) that I doubt we will be seeing anything like that next week.

In any case, whatever Apple has in store, we only have a few more days before we’ll know for sure.

u2mr2os2

I don’t see what “all the hardware differences” between Macs and iPhones has to do with software like iPhoto. Apple Other than the obvious need for a new UI, it only deals with hardware when the OS alerts it to a USB disk it needs to check for images. In many cases, the part interacting with hardware just needs to be left out as it doesn’t make sense with the tablet anyway. I think the biggest difficulty would be creating the new UI.

Bintohead

Ted,

While what you say you would like to see sounds nice - everything that I have read points in the opposite direction.

What it sounds like you would like would be a netbook, and from what I’ve read, Jobs doesn’t want to enter that market.

My understanding of the device is that it’s meant to consume media - not so much be a creation (text or otherwise) device.

I’ve read that people have hacked HP Mini 10’s to run OSX - maybe you should look into one of those options. You won’t have any support - but it will give you a smaller, lighter netbook with an actual (albeit smaller) keyboard.

Which would seem to be what you’re looking for.

From what I’ve read, I can see myself purchasing one of these “iPod Touch on steriods” - a big screen - to make casual web surfing easier - and check email. Use apps, play games, watch video and listen to music. Not as portable as the touch - but with a much larger screen. I’d love that.

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