One Thing's for Sure: Apple Won't Unveil a "Tablet Computer" on Wednesday

As we stand on the eve of Apple's presumed "tablet device" announcement, enough people have been asking for my thoughts that I figured I'd finally weigh in on what I expect Steve Jobs to reveal at the Yerba Buena Center in just a few hours.

I haven't said much about the much-rumored device. For one thing, there's been plenty of chatter about it already, with as much "wild-ass guessing" as reasoned speculation, and I just plain don't like to jump into that kind of whirlwind. There are also people who spend a lot more time studying what little real information is out there, and frankly, my Asian manufacturing industry resources just aren't what they used to be.

But mostly, I think it's because I haven't cared enough about it. I don't feel a gap in my technology needs right now. My desktop and (increasingly) my laptop serve my full-bore computer needs and my iPhone serves me very well as a mobile computing device. Almost every item in my once-long wishlist has been checked off, either by improvements to the phone by Apple, or more often by ingenious apps from independent developers. (I'm writing most of this article, for instance, using a terrific app from bytesquared called Doc2, which lets me create and edit Microsoft Word-compatible documents on my iPhone. Combined with its support for Google Docs, it's a tremendously useful program.)

And that's what got me thinking. I've rarely felt there was a huge something missing in my technological life, at least just before Apple revealed a new product. Apple's magic, though, has been to invent things that you never knew you wanted, but now suddenly can't live without. That goes for the iPhone, iPod -- even the original Macintosh. And that's what I believe Apple is going to unveil tomorrow. Not a "tablet computer," certainly -- those have been around for years. And not another Kindle-like eReader -- at least not as it's primary function. I don't even believe it will be merely a bigger iPhone -- what would be the point? No, if Apple is going to get me to be willing to carry around an almost-laptop-sized device and not just take my laptop, it's got to offer me something more compelling than anything I've heard before -- not just a "cooler" laptop or more powerful iPhone, but a whole new category of multi-purpose computing device. Heck, even take out the computing part from that description. To have the mass-market appeal that Apple will insist on in order to bring a device to market (let's call the AppleTV The exception that proves the rule, shall we?), it's got to be something that isn't perceived as a "computer," just like the iPod and iPhone aren't perceived as computers.

Having said all that, let's jump onto the speculation bandwagon:

I think the rumors of a 10-inch or so screen sound like the right size for device. I'll also go along with iPhone-style physical controls: One button on the front, a rocker switch for volume control and a standard headphone jack. Ports for connectivity or removable storage? Highly unlikely, but an SD Card slot is possible for getting photos from a digital camera. Speaking of cameras, I'm looking for a front-facing iSight camera so we can finally have video iChat on the go. This may be my personal bias showing, but I think it's time. In fact, I think this is much more likely than a camera on the back for taking photos, whether it's the only camera on the device or a second one.

Connectivity: WiFi for sure with added 3G networking only slightly less certain. In fact, I think 3G connectivity will be so important to the device that it will come a la the Kindle -- always available. If not free, then bundled into a larger subscription package, complete with MobileMe (perhaps expanded) synchronization and services, even including some kind of Back to My Mac feature. AT&T may be the carrier, but if it is bundled, this may be Verizon's foot in the door. And if it's not bundled, I don't think it will be carrier-exclusive, not even in the U.S. I also think it will have some kind of hardware connectivity -- for syncing and docking, yes, but mostly for hardware expansion opportunities (e.g., hardware keyboard.) Onboard storage? Anything lower than 64GB is probably too little; anything over 128GB might start pushing up the price too much, at least for now.

Music, Movies/TV and Publishing: Yes, yes and yes. I also think it will have direct access to the iTunes store for renting and purchasing TV shows and movies.

Support for Flash: Not a chance.

So what will a device like this run? I'd hope it would run existing iPhone apps, without modification. I don't think Apple's design sensibilities would allow them to just run scaled-up to fit the larger screen, though, so I'll call for them to run at iPhone resolution, perhaps as a floating window. I think it will also come with bundled productivity apps, like customized versions of Pages, iPhoto, etc. It will also run new native apps, which will be available only through a new section of the iTunes store (hopefully, more scalable than the iPhone app store has been to this point.)

Name and price: There has been no shortage of proposed names for the new device. I don't like "iTablet" because I think it associates the device too closely to current tablet computers. I also don't like "iSlate" because, well because it's just lame. There's also been some speculation that Apple will resurrect the "iBook" name it abandoned several years ago in favor of "MacBook." There's a lot to like about that name, but I'm calling it a long shot for two reasons: I think it's too soon to use for another product; and given the devices probable use as an eReader, it's could give a perception of the device that's too limiting. In fact, I'm really hoping this isn't an "i-" anything. When I saw the invitation to the event Apple sent to the press, my first thought was "Palette." Some others saw the same invitation and thought "Canvas," which I like even better. As to price, I'll call for something in the $600-800 range. Anything higher and I think it starts to cut into Apple's laptop line. Anything lower, at least for now, is probably unnecessary.

Now it's Apple's turn. Because even if I'm right about every detail above, I don't see this as a compelling device. I can do most of this with my iPhone and still have the convenience of carrying it around in my pocket. And if I do have to carry something around, I might as well just bring my laptop. I'll get more power and versatility, and won't have to lay out the extra cash for another device. But I firmly believe Apple's already thought this through and the new device will have something more, something new to offer. Something none of us have guessed. Something none of us knew we wanted.

And something that, starting tomorrow, many of us suddenly won't be able to live without.