If there’s one thing I enjoy it’s thinking about future Apple products. Not only is the company good at revolutionizing the tech industry with every one of their recent ventures (iPod Touch, iPhone, new Macbooks), but they are the only company able to launch a product with almost complete obscurity. I like to think of them as the anti-Google since Google releases projects in early beta with great fanfare (see: Google Wave). Maybe their secrecy explains their ability to launch products above and beyond what the competition has to offer, but I digress - analyzing this is above my pay grade. At the risk of grouping myself with all the Apple rumor sites and being instantly and exhaustively wrong this Wednesday when Apple releases a product completely different from the one advertised here, I’ll try my hand at predicting what we’re going to see from Cupertino in 2010.

What’s a tablet computer, anyway? Didn’t Microsoft try this a decade ago? Also, aren’t the iPhone / iPod Touch just mini-tablets? Lots of people seem to think there’s a space that needs to be filled between the iPhone and PC, hence the “netbook” category. I don’t understand these, and I don’t think Apple does, either - they’re not going to release something that does less than a laptop for less money.  So what would a tablet do that a laptop, netbook or iPod Touch couldn’t? And how is it going to appeal to Jim Bob McAmerica?

We know a little bit about the hardware and software thanks to leaks from companies Apple is working with - David Pogue has a good roundup. As far as the finer details of the software, though, we’re on our own. Apple has reportedly been trying to make The Tablet work for years, with Steve Jobs noting that tablets weren’t good for much besides “surfing the web in the bathroom“. When you think about it, he’s right - tablets are too large for carrying in your pocket, but too small to have a useful keyboard, so what’s left?

Let’s examine Apple’s strengths. They revolutionized the music industry by offering an online store that let you buy music by the track and do whatever you wanted with it. Then they started doing the same with the movie and television industry, offering TV shows and movie downloads. Most recently, they launched the app store, a massive undertaking that allows developers to profit from the “walled garden” of the iPhone environment. Apple is a hardware company that partners with content creators to bring services to consumers. After music, TV, movies and applications, what’s next in line in their strategy? I say newspapers. Paying $0.25 per article makes sense to me, and I’d do it all the time if given the chance. Buying a subscription to a paper, on the other hand, locks you into them for all your news. Micropayments seems to be the future, the papers just need a unifying strategy. Apple can give it to them.

If The Tablet needs to offer more than a sophisticated e-reader. I’d like to finally see handheld iChat. The iPod Touch and iPhone don’t do it yet, probably because they don’t have front-facing cameras which would be cool for video chatting, but maybe The Tablet will.

Beyond reading and chatting, the device is going to appeal to us because it will have incredible video capabilities. I wouldn’t put it past Apple to offer 720p streaming movie rentals on this thing. Watching a movie while holding the screen doesn’t appeal to everybody, but it’s better than watching it on your iPod, which people for some reason do all the time.

The core operating system has to be radically different from what we’ve seen before. Apple changed OSX dramatically for the iPhone, they’ll do it again for The Tablet. It’s going to be gesture-based to the extreme since it will require your whole hand to operate. OSX on the desktop is designed for the mouse, a single pixel which allows for clicking and dragging. OSX on the iPhone is designed for one or two fingers, which allow for some gestures (for things like zooming) but means the touchable interface elements (buttons, etc) have to be “blown up”. OSX on The Tablet will probably need you to use two, three or four fingers, plus your thumb, to do anything but has much more space and better hardware to work with than an iPhone. I think this alone is going to make people want to give up their laptops for a tablet just because using it will look “fun”.

One issue they’re going to have to work around is text input. On the desktop, you’ve got a full keyboard, which is the most universal and fastest way of getting data from your head onto your screen. On the iPhone, you’ve got a virtual keyboard which is pretty good but I wouldn’t want to type a novel on it. On the tablet, a virtual keyboard seems less practical since most peoples’ thumbs can’t reach each other on a 10” screen. It wouldn’t surprise me if Apple brought back the stylus. Then again, no one thought the virtual keyboard on the iPhone would work, so I’m ready to let them challenge my assumptions and release something entirely different from what I’m expecting.

I know I’m missing a lot here, but I don’t think anyone can guess accurately what exactly Apple is going to offer without inside knowledge. In order to keep score, here’s a list of predictions I outlined above - maybe after it’s announced I’ll do a follow-up and we’ll see what I missed:

  1. The Tablet will offer newspaper content and micropayments via your iTunes account
  2. It will have strong support for video iChat
  3. 720p streaming movie rentals
  4. Text input will be with a stylus or split-screen keyboard (left-hand keys on the left side, right-hand keys on the right so your thumbs can reach them)
  5. Gestures that require all 5 of your fingers
  6. Trickle-down of new features from The Tablet to the iPhone’s operating system (new home screen, new theme, new multitouch gestures, etc.)

And here’s a list of things I don’t expect The Tablet to have:

  1. Support for bluetooth keyboards
  2. Support for non-apple-approved apps (I’m predicting everything must go through the App Store, and has Apple’s approval)
  3. E-ink screen (definitely going to be full-color)
  4. A virtual keyboard that requires both hands
  5. A roaming data plan that has anything to do with AT&T
  6. A browser that has anything to do with Adobe Flash

Oh, and one more thing… if I was going to bet on a name for The Tablet, it would be “Canvas”.

Posted Sun 24 January 2010