Wishful Thoughts on Apple's Tablet: A Thought Experiment in Design

The following is a thought experiment in the form of a review of the tablet Apple hasn't actually announced yet. For the purposes of this piece, I'm calling it the iSlate, and I envision it as a reader designed to reduce or eliminate the need for printed textbooks in secondary and higher education. Just in case this isn't what Apple has in mind, I wanted to present these ideas as an open source design proposal.

At a glance, the iSlate 101 looks like little more than a typical netbook, albeit one that has spent a little too much time at the fried food line in the cafeteria. (Then again, we're getting pretty spoiled when we start considering an inch and a quarter a "fat" computer.) Having opted for the milled aluminum rather than the while plastic case, our device was a little on the heavy side, as well. However, the student-friendly 12-hour battery accounts for a good deal of the unit's weight.

The iSlate is designed to be held in portrait mode, like a book. In this orientation, the iSight camera will be at the top center, flanked by small speaker openings at either corner. The tiny hole at the bottom of the bezel is the built-in mic.

A Plethora of Ports

The iSlate is, in at least one way, the anti-Air. The right edge is slot-city. At the top, is a bank of eight FlashROM slots (we'll talk about those a bit later), four USB 2 ports and two, well spaced SDHC Card slots. There are also MicroDisplay, and Ethernet along with dual stereo earphone jacks. You'll also recognize a traditional iPod docking port in the mix. The SuperDrive and a MagSafe jack occupy the bottom third of the panel.

FlashROM is the concession to textbook publishers that allowed the iSlate to see the light of day. Unlike traditional flash memory, the FlashROM is, as its name implies, read-only and protected in such a way that they are impossible (or at least very, very hard) to duplicate. Because there can be only one book per slot, the iSlate can support up to eight textbooks loaded simultaneously. Beyond the draconian interests of digital rights management, the read-only nature of FlashROM has one advantage for the buyer: textbooks remain perennially pristine. All your bookmarks, marginal notes and highlighting is stored separately as metadata, leaving the original textbook as fresh as the day it left the (digital) press.

Instant On

When you hit the Sleep button, the iSlate goes dormant in a hibernation-like mode, its shutdown state written to a bank of very fast flash memory. We checked this feature out by closing and opening the book a few times in rapid succession and discovered that the memory reads quite quickly. The writing phase, which can continue on its merry way after the sleep state is activated, takes considerably longer. Like the iPhone, the sleep button, near the top right edge of the screen, will instantly shut off the display. Holding it down for three seconds will completely power the iSlate off (a single touch powers it back on.) Even though it's perfectly happy to hibernate, Apple recommends a full boot cycle about once per week to allow the OS to perform some basic housekeeping.

Like the iPhone, the iSlate has only two other mechanical controls. The volume slider is along the screen's top right edge and, at the base of the screen, is the iSlate equivalent of the iPhone's "Home" button. A quick push slides all your open documents off the Desktop while holding it down for a second or two will minimize all open documents.

The touch screen is essentially the same technology used in the iPhone, bright enough to be read outdoors with sensors to tone it down inside. The down side is that, like the iPhone it's shiny glass making reflection and fingerprints an issue. We wouldn't be surprised to see a glare-reducing screen protector on the market fairly soon.

The default Desktop (if it can still be called that) is a hybrid of the iPhone/Touch and the traditional Mac OS X Finder. The iSlate's app collection is housed in a Leopard-like dock at the bottom of the screen (the "bottom" being defined by how you happen to be holding the iSlate--motion detectors will rotate the screen based on how it's being held). The Dock includes the device's Safari application, a student-optimized version of iCal (it has several add-ins to simplify setting up class schedules, homework assignments, and such), Address Book, Dashboard (which becomes a remarkably useful tool on a device like this), the iSlate's slimmed-down iWork suite and iChat. Unlike OS X, you don't have control over the size of the icons in the Dock, they are all finger-size. However, you can slide the Dock sideways to reveal more applications. Removing applications is just like the iPhone/Touch: hold a finger down on one for a second and a small "X" will appear on all the non-native programs as they shudder in fear. A bar at the top of the screen has finger-sized versions of the connectivity-related icons you'll normally find on the OS X menu bar with the traditional Apple icon at the left, which pops open the settings panel. Your "installed" books show up in the main area of the Desktop as tiled icons.

Even though we haven't heard any official announcements yet, the mic, camera and speakers should make the iSlate an ideal wireless client for Elluminate's powerful interactive education/collaboration tools. On campuses that offer umbrella wireless coverage, iChat could really come into its own as a communication tool. We're sure education professionals will weigh in on whether or not this is really an asset.

A Good Read

We'll explore the extra goodies later, but now it's time to hit the books. So into Slot #1 goes Potter & Perry's Fundamentals of Nursing, 6th Edition, with its 1,510 copiously illustrated pages shoehorned into a thumbnail-size FlashROM card which, as we discover, is little more than a write-disabled version of the same kind of Micro HDSC sliver that stores pictures on our pocket-size point-and-shoot. The diminutive size is a bit disconcerting, considering that if you misplaced it, you would be charged the full $199 buyout charge rather than the $59.99 two-term rental fee. Fortunately, the eight slots provide more than enough room for a typical term's load of books, plus a slot or two for personal storage.

Fundamentals was a direct port from the print edition based on the technology provided by Safari Books Online. The system is rather remarkable both in its ingenious design and the corporate détente that permitted its development. Using Multi-touch gestures, you can turn the pages of the book, watching them curl in a paper-like way or scroll the pages sideways or vertically. A two-finger slide will scan through the pages using Cover Flow. Considering the amount of graphic rendering that's going on, this is a rather impressive feat. Based on the rapidly increasing warmth of the device after we amused ourselves with this feature for a while, we began to realize that it also must be an effective battery-drainer. If you run your thumb up or down along either side of the page (once open, the iSlate easily accommodates both righties and southpaws), a display of the page number, chapter and section headings will follow your finger.

As you would expect, the text is crisp and sharp. Beyond the auto-brightness feature, you have the option to adjust the virtual paper that the page is printed on from bright white to a softer off-white pulp. Not only can this be a little easier on the eyes, it gives a much more organic feel to literary pieces (somehow, reading Bleak House on a stark white page just doesn't seem right).

The page layout format has the built-in ability to exploit the fact that print-resolution graphics have been greatly scaled down to fit the 72-DPI screen. Tap on any illustration and it will fill the screen. Multi-Touch gestures facilitate zooming and panning high-resolution images. Unless you choose to dismiss it, the photo's caption remains on the screen at a standard text size, visible even if we are fully zoomed-in on a large picture. In our nursing text, complex charts and tables functioned as graphics and could be examined in great detail.

Some Highlights

One of the fatal flaws of laptops and eBooks as textbooks has always been the fact that you can't write on them. A cost-conscious student is faced with an unsettling choice. You can leave a book unmarked and in excellent condition to fetch the best possible resale price when the course ends, or you can mark it up as much as you need to make sense of the material and recall it later. then take a sizable hit on the resale market. The iSlate OS eliminates the dilemma. Your highlights and notes are stored as "sidecar metadata" meaning that they're added non-destructively and stored in a compact external file and not on the card. This not only works for highlighting, but for your note taking, as well.

The iSlate 101 comes with a complete set of highlighters as well as a whole slew of unique e-tools. A two-finger double tap opens up the textbook tool pallet (exactly where you tapped). You'll notice that the icons are large enough to easily tap with a finger. The highlighter is displayed at the top left. The small triangle in the bottom corner tells us that the highlighter is a multi-function button. Tap and hold the icon and a menu drops down, offering a rainbow of colors. Unlike a traditional highlighter (at least in this reviewer's hands) your lines across the text will be ruler straight. Highlight too much or too little? Rubbing over the area with the same color will ether erase or expand the selection. When you "thumb through" the book, the highlighted color(s) that you've used will appear on the page index in the margin. You can also search for highlights or use them as search criteria. For example, say your color code for "probably on the mid-term" is blue. You can search for pages in chapters 6 to 12 with a blue highlight. Or maybe you need something more specific; search for references to hematology highlighted in pink (things I need to memorize).

Marginal Thinking

Depending on how you like to study, you may find yourself constantly making notes, scribbling in the margins, on sticky-notes or in a separate notebook or, most likely, all of the above. The iSlate is more than happy to accommodate you and in a variety of ways.

If the keyboard is your favorite input device, bring up the tool palette and tap on the icon of a keyboard in a box. When you touch your finger to the page, you'll see a crosshair cursor. Just drag to create a text box in the margin. Clicking anywhere else on the text page will create a collapsible note similar to the comment boxes available in Adobe's Acrobat. Normally, an iPhone style keyboard will slide up from the bottom of the screen. However, if the iSlate senses that you have a Bluetooth or USB keyboard connected, it will assume it will be handing off control to that. While either keyboard is open a thin properties panel will appear at the top of the screen to give you some limited formatting options (font, size, color, etc.).

The next icon over, a keyboard with a sheet of paper rising above, is there to let you take more verbose notes on your reading. For better or worse, the iSlate assumes that you'll be compiling all your notes in the same document, so that will open and automatically insert a time and state stamp, chapter, section and page number. These can be customized or turned off completely.

For any extensive note taking, an external keyboard would be a virtual necessity. Personally, we like the Matias folding keyboard for both its portability, its optional Bluetooth interface and, packaged in the same order, we can pick up one of their iRizers that are perfect for the iSlate even though they were originally designed for the MacBooks.

Your fingertips may be okay for writing your name in the sand or inscribing a critical comment on a dirty window. It's not that hard to get used to writing with a stylus, but if you're on the go, they tend to get lost. The iSlate introduces a dramatic new take on Multi-Touch: the virtual pen. Hold a pen between your thumb and index finger. Now, pull out the pen and start writing. By sensing where the tips of your two fingers are touching the screen, Multi-Touch calculates where the pen point would be. It's a bit spooky at first, but the virtual pen is nearly as good (or bad) as your natural handwriting. Apple's long-dormant Graffiti writing system can, if you wish, translate your writing into text. Or, you can simply keep your free-form scrawl, circles, arrows or diagrams on the page as is. As it did with the highlighting, the iSlate will flag pages with handwritten notes. However, if your comments are in text, either via a keyboard or Graffiti, they're automatically indexed as searchable items.

The next version of the iSlate may take several more leaps in the handwriting recognition arena. The "other" Steve (Wozniak) has been doing some breakthrough engineering for Axiotron, which may possibly find its way back into the Apple product.

Extraordinarily Rich Media

Because the operation is based on fairly mature technology, converting textbooks to iSlates is fairly painless for publishers. However, whenever they're ready iSlates can move into a rich media realm that was previously only available at Hogwarts. Every new technology needs its showpiece application to show just how high the bar can be set. For the iSlate, this must have been a daunting task. Pearson, with the success of Safari Books Online under its belt, answered the call with a half dozen sample chapters from Totora, Funke and Case's Microbiology: An Introduction.

The most obvious example that something is a little different is the player control bar at the base of some images. These motion graphics can be as basic as animated graphs, as entertaining as archival newsreel footage or as illuminating as interviews with well-known scientists. It appears that very little of this media has been created for the iSlate, but a good deal of effort has gone into research and clearances. One clip originated in a Nova episode and we spotted some spectacular footage credited to BBC and NHK, as well.

Less obvious is the iSlate's power as a hypertext engine. Anything more than the briefest touch on a word or phrase (dragging your finger across a phrase will highlight it) will bring up a contextual menu. Depending on how the document was designed, a number of options will drop down. Because this was the iSlate's showpiece app, we saw "Lookup in Dictionary," "Lookup in glossary," "Find other references," "Search in Google," and "Search in your notes."

Choosing the Google search, assuming you're online via Ethernet, local wireless or WiMax, will bring up a "micro-browser" window to take you out to the Web. The other options will open the appropriate windows. The concept of an index has been completely rethought for the iSlate. As a result, it's a bit hard to describe. There are no page numbers in the index. Tapping an item will bring up a contextual menu listing the chapter, section and a bit of context. Holding your finger on a selection lets you drill down to any subsections that fall under the heading much in the same way that second-level entries appear in a print index. The overriding theme here is to hold onto as many of the original printed book paradigms as possible, but exploit them with multi-touch accessibility.

Now for the Goodies…

This last feature begs a Jobsian "…and one more thing" introduction. Sitting in the Dock, you'll notice an icon that looks remarkably like an iPod Touch. And that's exactly what it is. Even though it lacks the Apple apps already built into the iSlate, it contains all the other functions of the iPod Touch, talks to the iTunes Store and is compatible with all the third-party software that's currently available. In fact, with the built-in microphone and, apparently GPS, the iSlate can make use of all the recording and map-based software normally available only to iPhone owners.

One very cute feature of the "soft" iTouch is the auto-orient feature. It can be set to flip to either portrait or landscape mode based on the content it's displaying and can be rotated manually with a finger-flick. If you're simply playing music or listening to an audio stream or podcast, the display can be either minimized or hidden. The built-in microphone is only really useful if you're the one who's speaking. Our Blue Mic Mikey fit nicely into the docking port and gave us great, near-podcast quality when recording a lecture in the acoustical nightmare of a traditional classroom. We wouldn't be at all surprised if the iSlate has enough processing power for a decent speech-to-text application.

Will it Fly?

Here's where we need to get down to business and do a reality check. We're not in a position to quote an actual price here, but we're confident that it will be somewhere between a netbook and a MacBook. It can do nearly as much as either, but it does it all somewhat differently. If a student sees the iSlate as an adequate replacement for their laptop and iPod, the economics are there. Will secondary schools be able to buy and distribute them in bulk? Probably not.

The second big question is the reaction of the textbook publishers. From a content standpoint, the iSlate opens up undreamed of opportunities. However, it radically changes their business model. The cost of printing, shipping and distribution of thousands of tons of textbooks is hugely expensive and, as such, is a major market for a number of subsidiary industries.

This begs the question, "can enough people make enough money for this new technological direction to succeed?" However, Amazon's Kindle is chipping away at a small corner of the print publishing market, and that may pave the way for a highly sophisticated solution for a highly sophisticated (and specialized) market. Even with as much off-the-shelf technology that the iSlate uses, Apple is going to have to sell a huge number of these boxes to make the operation profitable. It would be a task nearly as hard as, say for example, revolutionizing how people distribute and buy music. It may even prove to be as big of a dream as a computer company entering and quickly dominating the mobile phone business.

It's easy to imagine Shoeless Joe Jackson making an appearance in Steve Jobs back yard one warm summer evening a decade or so ago and saying, "The movie missed the point, Steve. What I meant was, 'If you make it insanely great, they will come.'" So far, the prophecy has proven true. And we may just be on the cusp of another revolution.