Tablet Thoughts

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.