Yesterday, I wrote:
Apple might be the only technology company that inspires its own fan fiction.
This was in response to this article in Macworld, “Four reasons Apple will launch a tablet in 2010,” where tech analyst Brian Marshall got to speculate that Apple was REALLY launching a tablet so that it could LATER launch a new Apple TV that included a built-in high-def screen and cost $5000. A “real” Apple TV.
I mean, sure, why not?
A lot of the “journalism” about the new tablet has been total fantasy league stuff. I’ve been there. It’s fitting that the mythical Apple tablet device has been nicknamed “the unicorn”: in Naming and Necessity, the philosopher Saul Kripke points out that while we all think we know what we mean when we say “unicorn,” in different possible worlds a unicorn could have wildly varying physiologies. A unicorn could have gills. It could photosynthesize. It doesn’t make sense to say “unicorns are possible,” because nobody could know from that statement alone what that might mean. Ditto the Apple tablet.
But Nick Bilton appears to have some actual sources on this, so the thing might very well be real. You might very well be riding a unicorn by the end of this year. I believe in the rumors enough that I cancelled my Nook pre-order to wait this thing out and see what happens. (How many customers has B&N lost by not getting that thing shipped out by Christmas? Eh — maybe the initial software would have been even more sluggish.)
In anticipation of whatever the heck might happen at the end of January, here I’ve rounded up the best four posts I’ve seen about the maybe/maybe not tablet.
John Gruber at Daring Fireball, “The Tablet”:
Do I think The Tablet is an e-reader? A video player? A web browser? A document viewer? It’s not a matter of or but rather and. I say it is all of these things. It’s a computer.
And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.
I say they’re swinging big — redefining the experience of personal computing.
It will not be pitched as such by Apple. It will be defined by three or four of its built-in primary apps. But long-term, big-picture? It will be to the MacBook what the Macintosh was to the Apple II.
This is a cool idea, especially insofar as most people don’t really need to do everything current laptops and desktops do. This gets elaborated by Marco Arment, who doesn’t really talk about the tablet as much as map our current ecology, in “‘The Tablet’ and gadget portability theory”:
Desktops can use fast, cheap, power-hungry, high-capacity hardware and present your applications on giant screens. They can have lots of ports, accept lots of peripherals, and perform any possible computing role. Their interface is a keyboard and mouse, a desk, and a chair. They’re always internet-connected, they’re always plugged in, they always have their printers and scanners and other peripherals connected, and their in-use ergonomics can be excellent. But you can only use desktops when you’re at those desks.
iPhones use slow, low-capacity, ultra-low-power hardware on a tiny screen with almost no ports and very few compatible peripherals. They can do only a small (albeit useful) subset of general computing roles. They are poorly suited to text input of significant length, such as writing documents or composing nontrivial emails, or tasks requiring a mix of frequent, precise navigation and typing, such as editing a spreadsheet or writing code. But they’re always in your pocket, ready to be whipped out at any time for quick use, even if you’re standing, walking, riding in a vehicle, eating, or waiting on a line at the bank. You can carry one with you in nearly any circumstances without noticing its size or weight.
Laptops are a strange, inefficient tradeoff between an iPhone’s portability and a desktop’s capabilities. They don’t satisfy either need extremely well, but they’re much closer to desktops than they are to iPhones. The usefulness and portability gap between a laptop and an iPhone is staggeringly vast (1:00). You don’t have them with you most of the time, they’re big and heavy (even the MacBook Air weighs 10 times as much and consumes about 10 times as much space as an iPhone 3GS), and they can only be practically used while sitting down (or standing at a tall ledge). Ergonomics are awful unless you effectively turn them into desktops with stands and external peripherals. But they can do nearly any computing task that desktops can do, and they’re able to replace desktops for many people.
This is something I’ve noticed about my own computer habits. I have a mid-2008 MacBook Pro. I love its portability, but largely just because I can detach from my desk and move it around the house. I really hate lugging my laptop across town to work, on planes for trips, or anywhere that I can’t immediately get myself settled — all the more so since I lost most of the strength in my arm.
My MBP isn’t really a portable computer, but a desktop on casters, if you get my meaning. I’ve thought about getting a MacBook Air, but it’s too expensive, or a cloudbook, but those are too cheap. So I’m actually already in this market.
Whatever the Unicorn is, it will be a genuinely portable computer, like the iPhone. And it won’t make precisely the same tradeoffs in power and functionality as either the iPhone or the MacBook Air in order to do it.
I think my favorite post is by Ars Technica’s John Siracusa, who brings Ockham’s Razor to bear on the rumors and speculation with surprisingly satisfying results:
There’s also the popular notion that Apple has to do something entirely new or totally amazing in order for the tablet to succeed. After all, tablets have been tried before, with dismal results. It seems absurd to some people that Apple can succeed simply by using existing technologies and software techniques in the right combination. And yet that’s exactly what Apple has done with all of its most recent hit products—and what I predict Apple will do with the tablet.
That means no haptic-feedback touchscreen, no folding/dual screens, no VR goggles or mind control. Instead of being all that people can imagine, it’ll just be what people expect: a mostly unadorned color touch screen that’s bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a MacBook. If I’m being generous, I’ll allow that maybe it’ll be something a bit more exotic than a plain LCD display. But there are hard and fast constraints: it must be a touch screen, it must be color, and it must support video. (We’ll see why in a bit.)
So how will an Apple tablet distinguish itself without any headline technological marvels? It’ll do so by leveraging all of Apple’s strategic strengths. Now you’re expecting me to say something about tight hardware/software integration, user experience, or “design,” but I’m talking about even more obvious factors.
* Customers — Apple has over 100 million credit-card-bearing customer accounts thanks to the success of iTunes.
* Developers — Over 125,000 developers have put over 100,000 iPhone OS applications up for sale on the App Store. Then there are the Mac OS X developers (though of course there’s some overlap). Apple’s got developers ready and able to come at the tablet from both directions.
* Relationships — Apple has lucrative and successful relationships with the most important content owners in the music and movie businesses.
These are Apple’s most important assets when it comes to the tablet, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Apple will lean heavily on them. This, combined with Apple’s traditional strength in design and user experience, is what will distinguish Apple’s tablet in the market. It will provide an easy way for people to find, purchase, and consume all kinds of media and applications right from the device. It’s that simple.
Kassia Kroszer at Booksquare is even more deflationary, again in a good way, pointing out we can’t just look to a Jesus Device to solve all of our problems:
Apple is an aggressive company. Apple is a tech company. And publishing people don’t necessarily get Apple. Last week’s breathless rumor about a 70/30 split (70% to publishers) was the tip-off. 70/30 is the standard Apple split! What is missed in the fine print (what is it about fine print that makes us always overlook it?) is that this split is on sales price, cash receipts, whatever you want to call it. Apple will not (unless I seriously misjudge their business acumen) be less aggressive on pricing than Amazon and likely won’t subsidize prices. I suspect Apple will not get into bed with book publishers unless book publishers play along.
If anything, the Unicorn will be part of an interesting and diverse digital reading mix. Of course, we already have one of those — you’re using it right now — and very few publishers are exploiting the potential of what already exists. The Unicorn won’t be running an exotic new platform with magical capabilities.
So let’s recap. It’ll be more portable and more fun than the best laptop you’ve ever had. You’ll be able to enjoy more content than you’ve ever been able to on your iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV. It’ll be faster, more versatile, and more beautiful than any dedicated reading machine. And while it won’t “save” publishing, it will probably be one of the major catalysts that prod it towards the future.
And this is only if what everyone admits to be true is true.
I think that’s worth waiting three weeks for.