Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Apple Tablet - it's all about content

The speculation about the tablet from Apple has swirled up again.

I’ve always felt that the next generation device for viewing content has been with us for quite a while, it’s called a laptop. All over the world people spend their evenings with them, "duelling laptops on the sofa" as one of my students described her evenings with her partner.

And it's not just the sofa, it's extended into the workspace too. Over the past few years, the desktop computer has looked increasingly like it has a quite specific, need driven future. You only install one if you want something either sturdy, dumb and cheap or very powerful indeed. The laptop, increasingly more powerful and connected, pretty well matching the desktop in raw power and capabilities, has ended up being the general computer of choice.

Apple’s proportion of laptop sales reflect this, steadily increasing year on year. They’ll be in no rush to replace or compete with that. Why a tablet at all? If Apple do one, it'll have to clearly differentiate them.

Many years ago Apple released a tablet, namely the Newton which it then dropped. The difference now is Apple’s focus on content. Content is everything now, we've finally reached a stage where all our content is digital and online, that future has actually come to pass at this point.

Kevin Kelly has talked about how all content is merging onto one platform, from news to music, from film to blogs, from books to financial services. There's but one platform, the internet, and all our devices simply offer different windows onto it.

Apple notably have always pointed out that the internet content flows into every aspect of their machines, that it's not just for the browser, as Google would have it. That firehose of content can and should be pushed into many different apps. I'll return to this in a bit, but here is where future exploration lies.

Any tablet, if Apple are to release one, will likely have one guiding principle, how best to present and manage content. Apple have understood how important this is from the early days of OSX, iLife has been a key factor in the successful rebirth of the Mac platform. The emergence of iTunes as the single most important application for Apple has consolidated ownership for Apple of the content creation and distribution arena. Apple also want to establish and control how that content is monetised in much the same way that iTunes does in digital music. They know all too well how content can drive hardware sales.

To speculate, primarily because it's fun, but also because it presents factors which will are in play.

Resolution and size - It’ll be like a large iPhone, but not that large and probably smaller than most people expect. Apple lead the way in pixel per inch displays in consumer products. The iPhone runs 160 dpi. Given that Apple have settled on 1280 x 720 for iTunes Extras and the LP formats recently introduced, you could be looking at a device 8 x 4.5 inches if the device is 160dpi. This is a perfect 16 x 9 form factor for HD video exactly matching iTunes native HD format. Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half, it’ll be a little smaller than that. I wouldn't be surprised if Apple increase the dpi and reduce the size further. They'll want to reduce the weight.

Weight - You’ll have to be able to hold it comfortably in one hand. It’ll have to be light, and that’s probably the biggest engineering challenge they face, finding some version of their beloved unibodies which can deliver strength with the right weight. It'll need some body to it for the audio.

Audio - It’ll certainly have good speakers, Apple have focussed a lot on speaker technology lately. They've excellent small speakers in the new iMacs and they've progressively made the internal speakers on iPhones and iPods louder.

OS and App Store - It’s going to run a version of OS Touch like the iPhone, with full screen apps running at 1280 x 720. Yes, this will take time to develop. Yes, developers will grumble and scramble, as they quickly rush to embrace it. Given FCC clearance times, there’ll be some advance time prior to market release. The App store will be king, no other way in bar jailbreaking it. The App store has been a huge success and moneyspinner for Apple. They’d love to extend that model. Apple's approval process will annoy and present new challenges for developers, but won't ultimately matter a damn to the market. Apple understand one thing very well, the key shift here is the relationship between the users and applications. Users have a simple uncomplicated relationship with Touch apps, Apple will do anything to protect that.

Bundled apps - The principal focus will be on viewing media of various forms from movies to albums to photography, the internet and email, lightweight document production. There may even be cut down but ever improving Touch versions of iLife and iWork bundled. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kindle app is in there too at launch.

Price - my guess, it’ll be 800 bucks. It’ll ship with all the iPhone aerials, GPS, Bluetooth, Wifi, 3G and a SIM slot. Hopefully Apple have learned not to tie themselves into a carrier, It’ll be unlocked and be available from carriers at a discount.

Connections - a version of the dock connector for sure but that's probably it. Much as I would like USB and an SD card slot, I can't see it. They'll expect you to use wifi and bluetooth for connection with other devices, be they printers or storage systems. MobileMe users will have access to their iDisk everywhere.

The geeks will complain about the closed system, Apple's control over applications, the limited feature set, yada yada. Everyone else will swoon. Emotionally and functionally, it'll be perfect for 90% of people. It will do pretty well everything most people want from a computer, email, browse, word processing, photo and video management and of course, listen to music, watch films, read books and magazines and check the net. You know, look at stuff. A platform for content of every description.

The one thing it won’t be is a general purpose computer.

We'll still be using them in our offices and workspaces. I couldn't work without VoodooPad and DevonThink Pro Office, Nisus Writer Pro and Bento, Photoshop and RapidWeaver, or without access to my years of data and I suspect that most people will discover their own version of that pretty quickly.

But a lot of people will not be lugging their laptops home at night.

It’s almost old-fashioned in it’s limited feature set as I have outlined it, almost like the computers in the early eighties with physical buttons for word processing and databases. I think most people will find a comfort in that, eating it up, a computer which ‘just works’ the way their iPod does with all the stuff they like. But for me, that's not really the full potential here. Despite the controls Apple have in place, despite the limits on features and focus on experience, or maybe because of all of them...other newer possibilities emerge.

I've blogged here before about the shift with the App Store. A fundamental change between how ordinary people and applications interact. People feel about apps the way they do about songs or movies. They're personal, a reflection of you, what you do and what you're into.

I see applications as a new content form. Both a form in and of itself but also one with the power to work with all existing content too. We're going to see the creatives who develop the best apps celebrated as widely as other artists as this century progresses, where apps become expressions of ideas and emotions.

This device, like the iPhone before it, could be very significant in the development of that, as software developers begin to fully explore the fact that, given that all content is digital now, they are ultimately the shapers of how that content is communicated to all those people on all those sofas.

It could even end up being the device where that old dream of computer art actually takes place.


  1. Lots of interesting speculation over on Ars by John Siracusa

    and Daring Fireball by John Gruber

  2. One other factor which has emerged in various discussions is the 'third' version of OS X.

    There's already three, OS X, OS Touch and OS Server. There will be a variant, close to OS Touch, as I see it, for a new tablet.

    What occurred to me tonight was the AppleTV. Apple have already a single purpose device in the AppleTV, it's sole role is to view content of various forms. I think the tablet may end up borrowing a portion of the software if it does, actually it may end up completely replacing it.


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