Rumors of an Apple Tablet have been spiking lately, kind of like iPhone rumors did the year before the iPhone was released. Even so, the rumors discuss few details about the device. I couldn’t find any blog posts or articles that attempt to figure out what the tablet might really be like overall, so I decided to make the attempt myself.
In this attempt to figure out what the Apple Tablet might be, I observed the devices, services and software Apple has released in the past two or three years, and I listened to what Apple head honchos said. Also, I tried to think like Steve Jobs and the designers at Apple, not like a typical Windows or Linux geek. That means keeping things simple, elegant, in context and eliminating anything that’s not absolutely necessary in the first edition of a ground-breaking device.
Because this device, if it is what I think it is, would really be game-changing (pun intended).
Here’s my prediction, including all the most fundamental details about the device that I could think of.
Tim Cook, Apple COO, said in the latest Apple conference calls for stockholders, that Apple will not be making inexpensive netbooks with cramped keyboards, and that Apple will be doing their own thing. That, my friends, is because they are working on the Apple Tablet. Netbooks are great for surfing the web wirelessly and checking email. The Apple Tablet will be that, and so much more.
Steve Jobs said the first 30 years of personal computing was dominated by the mouse, the next 30 years is all about touch. Multi-touch. The Apple Tablet will be a 100% multi-touch device, just like the iPhone. It will use glass and aluminum, just like all the latest Apple devices. There will be no cramped keyboard, because the device’s on-screen keyboard will be as big as the Apple Wireless Keyboard’s, which has full sized keys. Assuming about a 0.25” margin from screen to edge, that means the tablet’s width has to be about 11 inches, and implies a height of about 8.25” to leave enough space for the rest of the application and have a paper-like form factor, which we’re used to.
How thin can this thing be? I won’t answer that prematurely. Sure, Apple has developed multiple recent technologies that will enable a really thin tablet. Aluminum Unibody construction allowing great rigidity in a thinner product, custom non-removable batteries that are spread throughout the device, and most importantly, the iPod touch and the iPhone. The Macbook Air is also important to note. But how thin the Apple Tablet will be really depends a lot on how powerful it needs to be.
So how powerful does it need to be? Before anything else can be said, an all-important issue has to be dealt with here and now. What operating system and what kind of applications will this thing run?
The operating system it will run is going to be far closer to iPhone OS than it is to OS X Leopard. I suppose it will be a new and distinct branch forked from iPhone OS.
Part of the reason Apple will use iPhone OS on the tablet instead of OS X has to do with the success of the iPhone App Store. It is too late to accomplish such a feat on Macs and PCs, users have come to expect being able to download and install whatever they want on their full-purpose computers. But the Apple Tablet won’t be a full-purpose computer like your powerful laptop or desktop computer. It can’t be, because not all applications are suitable for multi-touch, and doesn’t have to be, because there’s really no reason to reinvent most software for running on a tablet. So long story short, the only way to get software loaded onto the device (unless jailbroken) will be through the App Store. (Some geeks won’t like me for even thinking that, but hey, just don’t buy the tablet if you don’t like the restriction. Microsoft will eventually do it the “open” way so just be patient.)
The other part of the reason for using iPhone OS is that it doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of full OS X. Sure, you’ll be able to use the Apple Tablet to surf the web, do email, take notes, calendar, watch YouTube, buy and play music and movies, play some amazing multi-touch games alone or with a friend, or run a multitude of other application types that can (and have to be) be redesigned work on a multi-touch tablet. But don’t think that you’ll be able to use the device to develop software with, like using Xcode, or doing CAD, or running any other kind of software that doesn’t work in a multi-touch-only environment. This means that this computer doesn’t need to have nearly as powerful of a processor as your typical laptop, and doesn’t need the full OS of one, either.
Think about the iPhone. It has a rather wimpy processor by laptop and even netbook standards. Yet it can speedily run its applications on a 320×480 screen. An Apple Tablet wouldn’t necessarily need a much better CPU, just a better graphics processor to handle its higher resolution. Look at what Apple did with the Macbook Air, that device is a whole lot more powerful than an iPhone, yet the width goes from 0.16 to 0.75 inch, and that includes the keyboard. Now what if Apple only needed to pack half that power in there, and no keyboard? That would be more than enough power to run iPhone-style apps at 1600×1200 resolution and many times faster.
The Apple Tablet wouldn’t need the typical array of ports that full-purpose laptops and computers do. In fact, it could probably survive quite nicely with only a headphone jack and an iPod connector. That’s right, nothing else. Maybe an SD card reader, but no USB ports, ethernet, or built-in CD drive.
No moving parts. No stylus. Glass screen on one side, bottom on the other side. No removable battery.
Oh, this thing will definitely fit in a manila envelope. It’s going to be iPhone-thin or possibly even iPod touch-thin.
What do I mean, iPod connector? You really have to think about it as a complement to your full-purpose computers. As a complement, it doesn’t need to do everything itself. Sure, it could run the full iTunes app with all the music library-management features, but it won’t. The app you’ll be running on it to get your music playing will be called ‘iPod’ rather than ‘iTunes’. That’s right. Just like the Apple TV, you’ll be able to buy music on the Apple Tablet but you’ll be syncing that music with your main computer, just like you do with the iPhone and iPod.
But wait. Even though this device won’t be a replacement for some people’s full-purpose computer, it might in fact do enough to satisfy a large class of people. I mean, not everybody needs to develop software or run heavy-duty applications. The Apple Tablet will be the first non-mobile device for the masses that will be as easy to use as an iPhone.
Unlike other device manufacturers, Apple won’t release a tablet device that doesn’t come complete with a full complement of extremely usable, completely multi-touch optimized applications. Nobody else can really do this anyway, because they don’t have their own operating systems, and Windows 7 isn’t really a multi-touch operating system. Windows 7 is touch-enabled, but not touch-optimized. It isn’t really designed to fully run as a touch-only system (like Microsoft’s Surface is) and it doesn’t provide the fluid experience expected. Very few smooth scrolling physics-like effects in there. And don’t talk to me about Surface, because that’s not a mass-market device.
Let’s talk about multi-tasking. The Apple Tablet will have multi-tasking (as will the iPhone as soon as practical) but it won’t use a Windowing system. It will use the iPhone’s model of one app on screen at any given time. The OS X menu bar, as seen in depictions of the tablet on rumor sites, just won’t be there, that’s not even touch-enabled, let alone optimized for touch.
It will definitely have built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, since those connectivity options are absolute musts, but it might also have 3G capabilities, although I’m not so sure about that one because the iPhone already in your pocket has 3G and you can simply use your iPhone’s Bluetooth tethering to gain anywhere-internet access from your Apple Tablet.
And let’s not beat around the bush: You won’t be lifting this tablet to your face to make or answer a phone call. You’ll still be using your iPhone for that. That iPhone won’t be rendered obsolete. Which lends credibility to 3G by tethering as opposed to built-in 3G. It also makes me wonder what you’ll do when you need to snap a photo in order to get it into the tablet. What if the tablet only has a built-in camera on the same side as the screen, unlike the iPhone, but like Apple laptops do? That would be useful for the tablet’s iChat application but not great for taking photos. Then again, there’s always the iPhone in your pocket with that built-in camera and way easier experience than lifting your tablet up to snap a photo.
On this following particular point I’m venturing a little, but some of the many advances in multi-touch that didn’t make it on the iPhone might make it onto the tablet, such as the ability to detect your fingers from a small distance away from the screen, or other sophisticated sensor solutions which will help gain more accuracy from your fingers and give them some of the precision of a physical stylus. Don’t be surprised if Apple includes some of these types of innovations, they did similar things for the iPhone (proximity detector for your face for example).
Of course, unlike the iPhone, the browser on the Apple Tablet will have to support Flash in order to offer the most complete browsing experience possible on it.
I suppose smaller Apple Tablets will also be available later, with “cramped keyboards”.
I can envision a whole new class of two-player (or more) multi-touch games, played with the tablet placed between both players… inspiring indeed. There you have it, the Apple Tablet. Or at least, the Apple Tablet as it would be if I were CEO of Apple, which by the way, I’m not.
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