Will a Tablet Replace My MacBook?

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.