The Apple Tablet: An Educated Guess

It looks like Apple will be unveiling its tablet this month, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t join the throngs of digital fortune tellers, and try to figure out what I think the little thing’s gonna be and gonna do.

I’m a writing teacher. I’m interested in the tools of reading and writing. I’m not an engineer or a business guru, so my comments here will be a combination of what I think Apple will do, what I wish they’d do, and what I would do if I were in charge (read: without much thought to profit or engineering obstacles).

First things first, why is Apple gonna do this in the first place? What’s the impulse, the motive? Or better, what do they hope to accomplish? It’s important, I think, to consider some of the ways Apple has previously made its entries into markets new to them.

Think back to the iMac. Apple integrated the monitor and computer, and they simplified setup and internet access. Basically, they tried to take the way people used and wanted to use computers and simplified it. Nobody had to be scared. And they made it look good. Nice shapes. Colors. It really was revolutionary.

Think back to the initial iPod. They took the way people interacted with their music and simplified it, too. Screen big enough to navigate and glean information. One button that worked relatively intuitively. Huge file capacities. Not as revolutionary as the iMac, but still pretty amazing. Color came later. So did video capabilities.

Then the iPhone. Took the way people already used their phones, or wanted to, and tried to improve them. Big, beautiful screen. Touch interface. Tons of apps. Cheap apps. Integrated as many entertainment, surfing, and communications functions as it could into a single machine. Phone, mp3 player, pda. And again, one button. Not even a stylus. (Personally, I miss the stylus. … Silence.) I can’t remember if it initially shipped with a camera, but it does now, and video.

So what can we learn from all this? I think Apple has once principle as the center of their design philosophy. Identify what is sort of already being done, but poorly executed, and finds a way to do it way, way better. Usually with superior engineering and simplified interfaces. Sometimes at the level of hardware (iMac, iPod, iPhone, PowerMac, MacAir), and sometimes at the level of software (first to offer consumer-grade windows OS, iPhone OS, iTunes store, iLife).

The keys to understanding what Apple’s going to unveil this month are in finding industry-wide, usability flaws in hardware or software. Basically Apple looks for the ways people WANT technology to integrate into their lives.

(At the end of this post, I’m posing the following questions: How do your guesses about the coming Apple tablet differ or agree with mine, and why? Also, which of these things, including price, would be deal-breakers for you? But keep reading for now.)

Here are the opportunities I’m guessing that Apple sees:

1. Multi-touch. Already available on mice and track pads, but not very functional yet as on-screen functionality with a portable device. Other manufactures, like HP, have already introduced the multi-touch screens, but not really on portable devices, and not really that well.

2. Size. Let me explain, the iPhone has so much going for it, but almost all of that is limited by its size. Web browsing is not pleasant. And social networking services are severely stripped down (see Facebook, Youtube, Digg, Delicious, Blogging) because of the lack of screen real estate.

3. Text input. Windows Tablet OS is really not that bad at handwriting recognition, but it could certainly be better (and faster, please!). The current iPhone doesn’t really do that at all. And then there’s always voice recognition, but that’s got a ways to go, too. And what about a keyboard? Apple seems to have had some terrible, childhood experience with keyboards, as they still refuse to develop or license one for the iPhone/iPod, despite the desperate cries of thousands and thousands of users (and this at the cost of all those users they’re failing to convert from Blackberries?).

4. Social Networking. The biggest problem with social networking, IMHO, is that most people aren’t really being social (in that old, traditional, physically present sorta way) when they are using social sites. Sure, people can upload photos and video to Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook on the fly, but it sure isn’t easy or fun or immediately social.

What does all of this point to? Easy. Here are my predictions.

1. Before anything else, this machine is going to be about social networking (or whatever term Apple ends up calling it.) This is the only way I think they’ll be able to sell a bunch of these things at their usual premium prices. How is Apple going to convince users that this device is worth it? Especially when it’s likely that it won’t have the power of a standard laptop?

2. In terms of hardware, this machine is going to integrate a still camera, a video camera, and a phone. Yep. A phone. I just don’t think Apple will bank on the idea that people will have an iTablet AND and iPhone. Too expensive. Too much trouble with the extra device. And too much redundancy. Counters Apple’s marketing strategy of simplifying your life. Basically, Apple will market this as an alternative to the iPhone. Just a bigger, version. Some people are still gonna prefer the small, simple size of the phone. Others will want the size. And besides, if the iTable is going to run on a fast network, will it be such a stretch to add phone capabilities?

3. One thing I’d really like to see them do with the hardware is to make the cameras (still and video) capable of capturing images of the user (think webcam) as well as images away from the user. What the camera sees will be on screen. This would foster all sorts of cool stuff, but more than anything, it could finally get people to make those video calls that have really only been possible via Skype-like services. This could make that possible in a much more portable way.

4. No physical keyboard (thus a “slate” model). But I do think they’ll integrate an on-screen keyboard that give the user two interface options. One option will be a layout like the traditional QWERTY keyboard, and will be able to float to any place on screen. The other option will also be a QWERTY keyboard, but split into two sections, one for each edge of the screen. That way you can still type with your thumbs as you’re holding the tablet. I’m not sure how well this will work, though, as a user’s eyes will have a pretty decent distance to travel from one half of the keyboard to the other.

5. Which brings me to software ideas. I think, in lieu of a physical keyboard, and the problems of virtual screen keyboard, that handwriting recognition is a viable alternative. Up to now, handwriting recognition has been unthinkable without a stylus. But I just don’t see any Apple engineers caught dead integrating a stylus. No way. But here’s an idea. Maybe there’s a button on-screen, far-right/far-left that you hold down with your thumb (maybe keep it held down, maybe it toggles; I don’t know). The screen looks basically the same, but now has become a large, text-input area. You trace your words on screen, and the OS translates them into words. I know. Nobody does the handwriting recognition very well yet, so this is one of those places where Apple would have to dedicate itself to making some sort of engineering leap.

6. Apple will integrate as part of the OS, a social-networking-centered interface that makes it really easy to take a pic or video and upload it to the site of your choice. Texting. Instant messaging. Email. Twitter. Facebook. YouTube. Email. Calendar. Remote RSS Feeds. Document access (ala Google Apps). And blogging. Apple will integrate this into an interface that comes out-of-the-box fully operational, but highly customizable.

7. I’d really like to see a voice-to-text functionality, too. Maybe through the inevitable App store, but it would really need to be fully integrated into the OS.

8. The screen’s gonna be about 10″. Multi-touch. Edge-to-edge, with silver bevels like the iPhone. Bright. Speedy. Fine resolution. Some folks have been suggesting that it’ll be 7″. Maybe. Maybe there’ll even be two versions. Maybe even 7″, 10″, 12″, but Apple would never market something like that. Oh… wait…  Anyway, if there’s one size, it’ll be 10″. I base this prediction on the idea that Apple will market this as a device to replace a laptop and phone, rather than something that functions along side them. It won’t be a powerful laptop, no, but it will be just fine for all that social networkers this device will be aimed at.

9. The one button on the surface of the iPhone/iPod will be moved to the side. It works well as a thumb-button on that size device, but won’t function the same way on the tablet.

10. It will cost $1149. Most people have been predicting a lower price point, but that’s usually based on the idea that this device will be an addition to a laptop and phone. For calls, the iPhone is a cheaper alternative. For mobile web-surfing, netbooks are cheaper. But, like the iPhone before it, the iTablet will combine functionalities, a true do-it-all device. And priced right. Sure, a user could have an iPhone ($199) and a netbook ($299) but wouldn’t have the integration and simplicity of a single device. Nor does that equation factor in the Apple design premium (see the MacbookAir or MacBook). So it’s more apt to compare this device to the iPhone ($199) and a MacBook ($999). Given these scenarios, plus the simplicity of one, integrated device, and the initial hype that will receive this machine, I think people will still see $1149 as still a bargain. And $899 within 12 months.

11. Maybe not immediately, but eventually some sort of micro-network sharing capabilities (think wifi, bluetooth or IR, but better) to encourage more traditional social interaction practices.

So those are my predictions for the new Apple tablet. Ambitious, but attainable. And game-changing. There’s not device like it right now. Nothing so seamless. Nothing so comprehensive. The biggest troubles are processing power and battery life. And those, as always, won’t last long as obstacles. Even if this iteration of the Apple tablet doesn’t match my predictions, I’m almost positive someone will develop something like this.

And what does this mean for writing teachers? I’ve got plenty of thoughts on that, too. But you’ll have to wait for my next post.

My questions for you are these: How do your guesses about the coming Apple tablet differ or agree with mine, and why? Also, which of these things, including price, would be deal-breakers for you?

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