Which Path Will Apple’s Tablet Take?

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

For the moment, we remain standing at such a fork in the road, waiting for Apple to announce and ship its long-rumored tablet computer.

Will Apple’s tablet follow the path begun by laptop computers, working much like a variation of the MacBook Air, at least in terms of its software? Or it will it follow the ground broken by the iPhone instead?

Apple presumably already knows the answer, but has not yet revealed it. That’s why we’re standing here…waiting. What I do know is that Apple’s decision here may well make “all the difference.”

Most current speculation assumes that Apple is taking the iPhone path. An article from yesterday’s New York Times cites common predictions that the tablet will be “like the iPhone with a much bigger screen” and that all iPhone App Store apps “will immediately work on the new tablet while developers begin to tailor new software for the larger screen.” Apple is expected “to sell such a device by early next year.”

Most analysts have a favorable view of this approach. The take is something like this:

“Rather than trying to compete directly with current netbook designs and possibly falling victim to Steve Jobs’ assessment of these computers as ‘junk,’ Apple instead intends to build on the huge and still growing appeal of the iPhone, offering a gorgeous and ground-breaking iPhone-like device. If things go well, an iPhone-tablet could eventually dominate the netbook/tablet market in a manner comparable to the current success of the iPod and the iPhone.”

An exciting prospect, at least for Apple and its supporters. There is some worry about who exactly represents the market for an iPhone-tablet. It’s too big to carry around in your pocket but too small and too iPhone-like to be a total laptop alternative. So where does it fit in? For the moment, let’s assume that Apple solves this dilemma. What then?

Here is where I return to the divergent paths.

On numerous prior occasions (as in this article), I have lamented the closed-box nature of the iPhone — as compared to the wide-open Mac. Imagine if this were to change, but in the “wrong” direction. Imagine if Macs became as closed as the iPhone. To see what I mean, imagine that, whenever Apple gets around to announcing Mac OS X 10.7, its press release goes something like this:

“The new Mac OS X 10.7 includes many exciting innovations. At the top of the list: You will now be able to run all your favorite iPhone App Store apps directly on your Mac. That’s because Mac OS X 10.7 is based on the popular iPhone OS. 

True, you will no longer be able to add any applications to your Mac except those available in the App Store. This also means that all apps will have to be approved by Apple before you can install them. But, with over one million fantastic apps already in the App Store, and new ones added every day, this will hardly matter. To make things even simpler and more reliable for our customers, Mac OS X 10.7 will no longer permit any access to Library and UNIX folders. We’ve also eliminated most of the software in Mac OS X’s Utilities folder, including Terminal and Disk Utility.

All of your existing applications will no longer work in Mac OS X 10.7. But don’t worry. The new OS ships with 10.7 compatible versions of our iLife and iWork software. Other major vendors, such as Microsoft and Adobe, are already hard at work updating their software for 10.7. Microsoft Office has today announced a 10.7 compatible version of Office, due out in just three years.”

Okay. Apple’s press release would not likely read exactly like that. But you get the point. If such an announcement came today, it would be met with outrage; Mac users would revolt. Yet if the forthcoming Apple tablet follows the iPhone path, the above press release comes close to describing its features. Despite this, there is little sign of concern, never mind outrage.

In truth, I can understand this. Expanding the iPhone interface to a tablet seems like a natural for Apple; I look forward to this device as much as anyone. Despite the drawbacks.

But there’s a larger concern. If an iPhone-tablet succeeds in the marketplace, Apple might well leverage the success and extend the interface to other Macs. Five, maybe ten, years from now, most traditional OS X-based MacBooks and even iMacs could be gone — having migrated to some variation of the iPhone OS. The traditional Mac OS X would remain on some models, targeted for professionals and server administrators. But they would be the minority. For the majority of Mac users, it would mean the end of the open Mac.

True, we are a far distance from this scenario. Some may argue that nothing this extreme is ever likely to happen. But I believe it’s not that far-fetched — and certainly worth contemplating. As Robert Frost wrote, once you embark upon a chosen path, “knowing how way leads on to way,” it becomes doubtful that you can “ever come back.” Before we merrily join Apple down this road, let’s at least consider whether it’s the one we really want to take.