Slate of Hand

Well, it’s January, and as has become commonplace over the last several years, the public is abuzz with anticipation over a new Apple device. This time it’s a tablet.

I think the single most interesting thing about this unannounced tablet is how pumped everyone is about it, despite its lack of obvious value proposition. When we get new Mac models, we get lighter, faster, and prettier machines. When we got the iPod, we got a whole new paradigm for consuming music. And of course, when we got the iPhone, we got the ability to replace multiple devices with a single, all-in-one device that did everything much, much better.

With this tablet thing, however, I feel like I’m much more skeptical than the press, the fanboys, and everyone else who thinks it’s such a slam dunk to change the world. It’s like the greatness of the iPhone has everyone thinking Apple is somehow going to top that level of revolution with each new market they enter. There has always been a magical quality to the company’s development and introduction of products under Steve Jobs, but I wonder if expectations are a bit too high at this particular point in time.

In my opinion, even if the Apple tablet succeeds, I can’t see how it will have nearly as much impact as the iPhone, the iPod, or the Mac; and if it fails, it will be end-of-lifed or morphed into something else within a few years. I don’t think it will replace the laptop and I don’t think it will totally re-invent anything we currently do on our computers. Whereas the multi-touch interface enabled us to do things we’d never dreamed of doing on pocket devices before, I’m not sure it will do the same for bigger screens.

This, from a guy who sleeps in rose-colored Apple-shaped glasses.

In trying to square my lack of enthusiasm with what I’ve been reading about this thing, I keep coming back to the question: what’s it for?

First of all, I think this device is almost entirely for consumption, and not production. It will be borderline unusable for writing essays, designing posters, making movies, and even sending emails. When you want to produce something, you will not do it with this tablet.

With consumption and severely limited production as the premise, what sorts of things could you do with this device? I see four possibilities that could be construed as compelling:

  1. Television tethering
  2. E-publication reading
  3. Portable video viewing
  4. Video chat

Television tethering

This is probably the only thing on the list that would singlehandedly cause me to purchase an Apple tablet. I haven’t heard anyone talk about it, but this is how it would go: the tablet comes with a dongle that can connect via RCA/component/HDMI to any television. The tablet communicates wirelessly with the dongle to both send video to it via 801.11N (or whatever shiny, new, faster wireless interface is next) and also to control the TV watching experience. In this scenario, you could use it to relay things like live Hulu streams to your TV or display stored video you bought from iTunes or “borrowed” from somewhere else.

There is also a chance this could be done in concert with Apple TV instead of a dongle, but the clear problem it solves for me is “how can I easily display on television the video that is currently playing on my computer?” Right now, the answer to that is to carry my laptop over to my TV, plug it into an extra input, pop the video player full screen (if I even can), and then walk back over to the laptop every time I need to control something. It’s the critical link that is keeping Hulu and similar services from being a much bigger part of my life.

My feeling is that Apple TV has never done as well as Apple hoped, but also that it is not something the company is going to give up on anytime soon. Part of me wonders if the tablet, among other things, is just a much better form to stuff Apple TV functionality into. If it is, I’m probably in.

  • E-publication reading
  • Almost everyone who has a Kindle loves the hell out of it. I probably would have bought one awhile ago, but I just don’t read enough books to justify it. Aaron Swartz, on the other hand, with his 132 book per year reading pace, could probably justify owning three (sidenote: WTF Aaron!) (sidenote #2, WTFFFFF JOE!!!). If the Apple tablet did e-books plus a few other things in this list, however, I might be a buyer.

    To me, the biggest clue that Steve Jobs cares about this market is that he says he doesn’t. Jobs famously said a few years ago, in response to a question about entering the e-book reader market:

    “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

    Not only is that statement preposterous, but it flies in the face of the positioning Apple tries to bestow on its products: that they are for intelligent consumers. Guess what is strongly associated with intelligence? Reading. Particularly books. What Jobs really meant by his statement was:

    “People are reading fewer and fewer books because they are less convenient than other types of media.”

    The first statement is terse, dismissive, and meant to throw the press off Apple’s scent. The second statement is what you will probably hear at the launch event.

    Another clear clue that e-publication reading is a large part of the Apple tablet is the flub by Bill Keller of the New York Times a few months ago. Keller’s unauthorized reference to the tablet all but guarantees they have a deal with Apple to display New York Times content on this device. It could be something very simple and uncompelling like a Times Reader app that is offered for free, but what if it’s something more substantial like the New York Times actually subsidizing the tablet if you sign up for a two year subscription to the e-NYT? I’m actually less interested in what the New York Times (and other) content looks like on the tablet and more intrigued by what the economics behind this sort of content delivery look like.

    Another question I have about this tablet — if it’s going to compete with the Kindle — is what its equivalent of E Ink is. The Kindle enjoys a whopping one week battery life largely because it doesn’t require a backlight to operate. Currently, all of Apple’s screens are backlit, and unless the company has an answer to that, it may have problems competing head-to-head with the Kindle on pure e-book reading. Or has Apple invented a way to overlay an E Ink screen on the same surface as an LCD screen? That would be ridiculously awesome.

    Portable video viewing

    There aren’t a whole lot of really great solutions out there for watching video on the go. An iPhone is too small for most people, while a laptop is probably overkill. A tablet with 15-20 hours of battery life and the ability to stand up like an easel might fit the bill perfectly for viewing on a bus, on a plane, in a car, or elsewhere on the go.

    I don’t think this benefit alone would sell a lot of tablets, but it would help justify a purchase for some people.

    Video chat

    I’ve never been into video chat as I find it extremely awkward, but I understand it’s big in the grandparents’ set and every other set where people are potentially far away from loved ones. While I mentioned above that I don’t expect a lot of content production to be done on the tablet, live video capture and broadcast could be a notable exception because it requires you to do nothing but look into the tablet and speak.

    A few thoughts on form factor

    A lot of my skepticism around tablet computing stems from my belief that the form factor just isn’t as beneficial as it seems. Besides when sitting in a cramped airline seat, I don’t recall many situations in which I wished the bottom half of my laptop would disappear. When I have, it’s always been for high-volume consumption: long form video and long form text. In other words, things that don’t require me to do much of anything besides staring at the screen. Does a market exist for a device that does just these things and not much else? I think the Kindle has proved that at the right price point, the answer is yes. I guess I just don’t consider that as world-changing of a product as other people do. I guess we won’t know until we see it though, right?

    As far as actual form-factor goes, I expect something significantly more klutz-proof than the iPhone. My guess is an all-aluminum body with an aluminum panel that covers the device’s screen when closed and folds open to double as an easel when you’re using the device on a flat surface. I expect a solid-state drive as the only storage option but would like to see an SD-card slot as well. 801.22N (or better) wireless is a given, but if this thing has 3G/4G connectivity, it’s not going to be through AT&T. If I had to bet one way or another, I would be on wifi only. If this device is successful, it’s another bargaining chip for Apple when it renews iPhone negotiations with carriers, and I don’t think this sort of connectivity would sell many more units right now.

    So anyway, that’s all I have for now. I expect a device that will sell a decent amount of units but fall short of the world-changing expectations placed upon it by people who think Apple will never release another product that doesn’t top its previous one.

    9 comments on “Slate of Hand”. Leave your own?
    1. Doug says:

      Mike, what are the chances all the buzz is caused by the industry itself? All the publications are declaring it the next great amazing incredible thing because it is the only thing that can save most of them.

      It seems this time that more of the rumors are being driven by bigger media companies and less from blogs in France reported by Macrumors. Perhaps this is Apple seeding rumors to drive the anticipation level.

    2. Mike D. says:

      Doug: That’s an interesting thought I hadn’t considered before. You’re definitely right that the hype seems to be coming from larger and older media more than it normally does. Working closely with, I have to say that there is a pretty strict line between business and editorial here — as is also the case at most other news outlets — but at the same time, if a reporter is interested themselves in a piece of unannounced technology, there’s nothing stopping them from writing about it. So in other words, for your statement to be true, it doesn’t need to be the case that the heads of these media companies are specifically directing a drumming up of hype… all it takes is for the editorial departments themselves to take an above average interest based on the fact that the technology potentially affects their work and their industry significantly.

    3. Peter H says:

      Interesting post.

      I am interested in this form factor to solve the “Couch PC” problem.

      My regular laptop doesn’t work on a couch – doesn’t work when reclined, hard to balance on your lap and use the trackpad at the same time, etc.

      OTOH, there are a lot of things I’d like to do with a computer from my couch – surf the web, watch a video, scan email, skype, etc. Today I do all those things on my iPhone – but it seems odd to use a device optimized for portability (small screen, slow processor) when I’m in my house.

      When I’m on my couch, I’d prefer something optimized for couch – large screen, fast, etc.

      I think Apple could have an interesting product by using multitouch to solve the mouse issue, and also making something that is fast and also highly couch-compatible….

      The $900 price point may hurt mass appeal – however for my purposes I’d be an easy buyer if this solves my couch PC issue.

    4. Mykola says:

      One possible use case that seems to be implied from rumors of “crazy new interface configurations” is the use of this slate device as a peripheral for your PC.

      Anyone who has used a mac laptop for any length of time knows how natural and effective their touch pads are. Well, imagine if on top of everything else this slate can do you can also plug it in and have a wacom-style touch display replacing your mouse.

      I am also in favor of a couch device, a super book-reader and a go-anywhere multimedia screen. I’m with Peter, I find myself using my iPhone a lot around the house and it’s really not quite what I want it to be. It’s too slow and it’s too small. Sometimes I just want the internet at my fingertips without worrying about pulling up a laptop. All the better if the thing is couched as a peripheral for my computer OR my TV.

      Ultimately, though, we won’t know what it is until the end of the month. If it’s cool I’ll buy one – if it’s just a big iPhone, I won’t.


    5. Joe Clark says:

      Dude, I have a 210-book-a-year pace. And I’m not even a dot-com millionaire.

    6. kyle says:

      Don’t forget games. If Apple is smart (and they are), they will hook this thing up to the iTunes App Store and sell it in large part as a casual gaming system able to take advantage of many of the same games that people are playing on their iPhone.

      I think when you add the gaming aspect to all of the other points you mentioned, you have a fairly compelling ecosystem. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the price point was lower than many people are expecting, mostly because when you add in all the media + wireless services that could be sold through this product, they ought to be able to subsidize the cost.

      In the end though, I don’t expect this product to be the revolutionary product many are hoping for, at least not on the level of the iPhone.

    7. Mike D. says:

      Peter H.: Yeah, I think maybe the couch factor might be more interesting to me if I already hated using a laptop on a couch, but I really don’t. Again if we’re just talking about consumption, then ok… a light tablet would be great on a couch. But for navigating the web and sending emails, I still need a keyboard.

      Joe: Holy shitballs. I just added you to the post. Is that actual high-comprehension reading or reading with a lot of skimming built-in? I can’t even imagine what it’s like to read that much/fast.

      kyle: Yeah true. Games. I’m not much of a casual game player so I don’t think much about it, but you’re right.

    8. abu says:

      I’m with Peter H. too.
      And it’s not only about when sitting in the couch, it’s also when laying down in the bed.
      And in general for any situation when you’ve not a desk at your disposal.

      Most of my recreative use of the internet happens away from a desk, in bed, couch or on the carpet, and involves minimal typing. A tablet form factor would be perfect for that. Consider screen orientation too, a portrait screen is much more suited for reading.

      Of course if I was chatting or composing a long email a physical keyboard would help. I’m pretty confident anyway that Apple will allow bluetooth keyboards to talk with the device, unlike the iPhone.
      You’ll probably have your third party stand with a keyboard on the desk (or even a portable clamshell case) for when you need to type a lot.
      Imagine having a netbook with a detachable touchscreen right now, wouldn’t it be handy?

      Regarding a broader usage than reading and consuming content, I agree that a tablet form factor can’t be a complete replacement for a computer with a keyboard, mouse and large screen.

      Yet I think that having a general purpose computing platform in a decent sized screen tablet form factor with a well tought UI could enable lots of interesting uses.
      Think about control surfaces – eg, for musicians. Think about POS. Think about field workers. Think about social gaming – put the tablet on the kitchen table and play a board game or puzzle game in 3/4 people on it…
      It won’t supplant traditional computing but the possibilities are endless.

    9. Joe Clark says:

      As many of the books I get from the library are design books or picture books, I flip through those the way an admin assistant burns through an issue of Vogue.

      Many others are padded nonfiction books one can skim through over coffee. Like a lot of business books.

      Some others are compilations, only a couple of whose entries are of interest (e.g., one story in a collection).

      Some I keep for up to nine weeks and pick at here and there.

      Some are just duds and I give up after 20 pages. This still counts. (Books I bring home but never get to are marked up, inevitably, with DEL and deducted from the total.)

      Others I in fact get all the way through.

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