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If Apple's Tablet Is a Train Wreck, We'll Never See It

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jul 31, 2009 4:00 AM PT

I'm excited and torn over the rumors swirling around the fabled Apple tablet device. Excited because Apple may finally be nearing the release of a new, next-generation product. Torn because I'm having a hard time figuring out if I could personally find enough value in such a device to actually buy it.

If Apple's Tablet Is a Train Wreck, We'll Never See It

Still, there's plenty of room left in the mobile device space for Apple to make a splash, possibly as soon as September.

Let's take a closer look.

Nothing Cheap

Apple has consistently said it isn't interested in making a cheap "netbook" Mac in the US$500 price range. The retail cost of the simple desktop Mac mini ($599) seems to confirm that. In fact, any foray into the mini laptop space by Apple will most certainly erode the high-value MacBook and MacBook Pro lineup. Apple enjoys some of the biggest margins in the computing industry, and I doubt the company is willing to let them slip, especially considering its financial performance these days is the envy of most tech companies.

At the same time, didn't Apple just turn the aluminum 13-inch MacBook into a "MacBook Pro"? This leaves the polycarbonate "plastic" MacBook to anchor the laptop line's low-end entry. Might this maneuver shift the value proposition of the MacBook Pro so that it retains full "pro" value? Definitely. And doesn't this move give Apple some breathing room to create a smaller Mac device? You bet.

Little Mac or Big iPod touch?

While Apple might create a nifty Mac netbook, most Apple-loving speculators don't seem to hold much hope for one. Instead, there's a growing flurry of rumor-like evidence that suggests Apple is working on an iPod touch-like tablet device.

The Financial Times jump-started the latest rumor storm on Monday by reporting that Apple was working secretly with record labels to resurrect the CD by creating a new digital format that will encourage consumers to spend more, rather than simply buying hot single music tracks (my words, not FT's).

Obviously, if true, this is pretty big news.

The Rumors Grow

Apple could release a touchscreen tablet as soon as September, claimed the Taiwanese paper Apple Daily, according to Cult of Mac's Leander Kahney.

Presumably, Kahney is multilingual -- or he used an online translation engine or found a translator. He boils the report down to its essence, identifying Apple's Asian supply chain manufacturers, who would obviously need to be ramping up efforts to build any Apple device: "Wintek is providing the tablet's touch-sensitive screen. Dynapack International Technology Corp. is supplying the batteries; and the whole device is being assembled by Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.," he wrote.

Why September?

September is a big month for Apple. For the last several years, that's when the company has made its important new music announcements. Pick an iPod, and most likely the world first heard about it in September.

If Apple CEO Steve Jobs is going to make a public appearance any time soon, there's a good chance he would do it to help launch a new product from the safety of the company's Cupertino, Calif., campus. The resulting flurry of coverage would be nothing less than astounding, of course.

Still, rumor-focused AppleInsider.com reported that its anonymous insiders have watched the ongoing development of a 10-inch, 3G-enabled tablet shift and head back to the drawing board numerous times over the last couple of years while Apple -- or more pointedly, Jobs -- looked for perfection, if not the perfect new niche.

AppleInsider.com pegs the timeline for early 2010.

If Apple wanted to make an announcement in early 2010, the company could basically take over most of the buzz at the CES show in early January. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is set to give a keynote, so there's a bit of extra incentive for Apple to show up (along with a few weak rumors floating around that Apple might become an exhibitor).

What Is PA Semi Up To?

Meanwhile, remember PA Semi, the small mobile processor design firm that Apple gobbled up? The engineers have reportedly been working on iPhone and iPod processors. Might they also be working on a new processor for a tablet-like device? Personally, I have a hard time imagining that Apple isn't working on developing its own mobile processors. How could Jobs, with the success of the iPhone under his belt, not see the wide open world of mobile devices that's growing every day?

Still, there's got to be something compelling in a big iPod touch-like tablet, or Apple wouldn't release it, wrote Arnold Kim, editor of MacRumors.com.

"So the question remains, what added value has Apple decided it can provide in a tablet device that its competitors have been unable to offer? Are interactive album booklets alone compelling enough to launch this new device? Or have they finally decided to deploy more advanced multi-touch on a larger screen?"

Assuming the netbook form factor is out and an iPod touch-like form factor with a bigger screen is in, are there any other useful and flashy forms that a Mac tablet could take? Lots of different Apple watchers have suggested a dual-screen clamshell sort of option where one screen could be a virtual keyboard while the other could be the content screen. Sort of fits the iPhone model and yet retains extra portability, too. If such a unit could flip, essentially bending the other direction and fitting flush so it could be used like an ebook reader, Apple could have a multipurpose winner.

The Naysayers

Regardless of the form, there's plenty of criticism out and about even before Apple has said it has a product in the pipe.

Gizmodo's Adam Frucci lists several potential problems with an Apple tablet, starting with the made up price point of $800. Too much, he says.

As for an Amazon.com Kindle competitor, an Apple e-book reader would still likely be LCD-based, which doesn't seem as nice to use as e-ink or paper. Yet, the Kindle is hardly multipurpose, and it's been selling surprisingly well. As for using the iPhone as an e-book reader, I've given it a shot, and while it works OK, the screen is too small for serious reading. I read the first chapter of a paperback novel on my iPhone, and when it came time to buy the rest, I just bought the old-school print version. Way too much flicking around on the iPhone. But a tablet, yeah, I could see reading books on one.

Gaming isn't a big enough feature for an Apple tablet to take off, notes Frucci. "Gaming on the iPhone is annoying because it's a touchscreen, not because it's a small touchscreen," he writes. Hard to argue with that point really, despite the gaming success of the iPhone/iPod touch platform.

He also takes issue with a software keyboard, apps that might not translate well to a bigger screen, and performance that may not compare well to laptops. Because it's an Apple product, it'll still generate a lot of interest, but, he notes, "after the lust wears off we'll be looking at a middle-of-the-road computer in fancy packaging that costs twice as much as comparable devices."

Frucci is not alone. The Apple Tablet is a "train wreck," according to PCWorld.com's Michael Scalisi. He lists a plethora of possible problems, noting that watching movies would suck, and if Apple were to make a stand for it, it would detract from the sexy minimalism Apple is famous for. He wraps up the train wreck litany with a key point: "If Apple does release a device that resembles the rumored tablet, it will need some killer twist that nobody saw coming. It wouldn't be the first time Apple pulled something like that off."

Just because there are big flaws with tablets -- like typing, carrying it, protecting the screen, watching video, and finding a good fit for it in an Apple household -- that doesn't mean Apple hasn't figured out the answers to all these vexing problems, argued Daring Fireball's John Gruber.

"This thing is like the iPhone before it was revealed. There was a frenzy of speculation and rumor that Apple was poised to announce a mobile phone, but no one had any clue what it was actually going to be like," Gruber notes.

Surprise or Disappointment on the Way

Come September, I'm confident that Apple will announce a new generation of iPods. They will be bigger or faster, contain more storage, or provide cool new features like a camera or a mic. Something. Will one of these devices be a big-screen iPod touch? Maybe. Apple could certainly take a middle-ground, evolutionary approach to September and still retain a big lead in the market.

But if Apple blows us all away?

What if Apple's tablet is not only sexy, what if it's immediately and understandably useful? What if it's everything we want a mobile device to be? What if it does email, Web surfing, runs a gazillion apps, and is also a GPS-enabled unit with turn-by-turn directions? (It would, of course, compete as a video player for the kids in the backseat.)

What if it could replace an Apple TV? What if Apple provided a handy dock for connecting to a big screen? The iPhone already acts as a killer remote for the Apple TV -- could a tablet work in the living room in some new and fun way?

Whatever Apple is cooking, one thing is certain: The last thing Jobs wants is a failed product. His legacy is already cemented with the astounding iPod and iPhone universe. If there's a tablet in the works, we won't see it until it's ready for the world.

As for me, I'll just have to wait until then to figure out if it's something I'll have to find a way to buy.

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