Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Apple's Been Working on a Tablet Since 2003?

Former Apple employees informed The New York Times that Apple has been working on a tablet since 2003. What's the hold-up? Here's what they had to say:

Apple has been working on such a Swiss Army knife tablet since at least 2003, according to several former employees. One prototype, developed in 2003, used PowerPC microchips made by I.B.M., which were so power-hungry that they quickly drained the battery.

“It couldn’t be built. The battery life wasn’t long enough, the graphics performance was not enough to do anything and the components themselves cost more than $500,” said Joshua A. Strickon, a former Apple engineer whose name is on several of the company’s patents for multitouch technology.

Another former Apple executive who was there at the time said the tablets kept getting shelved at Apple because Mr. Jobs, whose incisive critiques are often memorable, asked, in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom.

The iPhone has certainly changed all of this. It demonstrates that reasonable battery life (although still to short in my experience), a wonderful interface, and simplified software make for a powerful user experience and an incredibly useful product. If Apple expands on this success and builds it into a larger platform, they have the potential to launch another computer revolution.

Here is my wishlist for such a tablet from Apple:
  • Day-long battery life (8-12 hours).
  • Ability to wirelessly tether to an iPhone for data connection when wi-fi isn't available.
  • The option to use either multi-touch (like on an iPhone) or a stylus for more precise writing/highlighting of text. My dream tablet could be a replacement for pencil and paper which would require more than finger painting on the screen. I think some form of stylus would be needed to best accomplish this goal.
  • Some type of video output so it can be used for giving presentations.
  • It would be a brilliant eBook reader, capable of reading Kindle format books (the iPhone already does this) as well as PDFs, Microsoft Office documents, ePub, and more. Additionally, the eBooks should provide the ability to reference the same page numbers as in the physical books -- something very important for research. Even better would be the ability to select and copy text, complete with all the reference information. There is no technical reason this type of metadata couldn't be embedded in digital books and would be a tremendous boon to students and researchers.
  • It will maintain the same pixel density as the iPhone but have a larger screen size. Ideally, it would be something like a 10.6-inch display with 1440x960 resolution (three times the length and width of the iPhone).
  • The ability to immediately install all apps you have on your iPhone without having to repurchase them.
  • A decent virtual keyboard with the ability to pair with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse. (Making it Apple's answer to netbooks.)
  • At least 64GB of solid-state memory.
  • Ideally, some ability to multitask -- either running programs in the background and/or the ability to divide the screen in two and run two apps side by side. Even better would be the ability to use the multitouch interface to cause the two apps to interface with one another. (Similar to the two screens on the Microsoft Courier concept.)
  • Built-in GPS, wi-fi, and Bluetooth -- with the option to get a 3G modem. The 3G modem should include a non-subscription based ability to download eBooks and apps -- similar to the Amazon Kindle.
  • At least one USB port.
  • An SD card slot for transferring photos from a digital camera.
  • Nice options for cases. (Something like the covers M-Edge makes for the Kindle.)
  • Size, weight, and form roughly like that of the Kindle. Great for carrying around without too much bulk.
  • Mini-USB for charging/syncing instead of the 30-pin iPod connector. (Not holding my breath on this one.)
  • Like the iPhone/iPod Touch, it should require minimal training for figuring out how to use it and install/uninstall new apps. Everything should be intuitive and simply work without all the fuss people have to contend with on desktop and laptop computers. (Hopefully this robustness will eventually come to those platforms as well.)
  • Standalone capability -- requiring no computer to fully use or update.
Elsewhere, John Dvorak describes his Apple Tablet theories:

The idea of a touchscreen, full-color e-book reader combined with a device that can run those 80,000 iPhone apps as well as easily browse the Internet does have appeal. One thing to note is the uniquely high readability of the iPhone's screen. Making the screen even larger would provide a stunning display that's easily as readable as the Kindle MEMS screen.

The screen would also be ideal as a photo display, photo-sorting table, and small presentation device for business meetings. Look for it to come with a remote control, so you can blow through PowerPoint slides during sales pitches.

The tablet's battery life will, of course, stink, compared with that of the Kindle. But I can see a device like this tethered to a wall plug and sitting near the couch in the family room. It could be easily unplugged and passed around as needed.

I hope he's wrong about the battery life, but like most of the rest of what he had to say. Others are saying that an Apple tablet could redefine print. (Possibly being to eBook readers what the iPod was to MP3 players?) Gizmodo seems to agree.

Brad Stone lists five reasons tablets have flopped:
  1. Commitment of manufacturers.
  2. Technology -- particularly touch screens. (The iPhone has changed this.)
  3. Input systems.
  4. Price.
  5. Software. (Most tablets ran Windows which is primarily designed for a mouse and keyboard.)
To this list, I'd add battery life, size, weight, and clunky, non-aesthetic design.

Hopefully, all of this is about to change. If it does (and I think it will), I believe it will help pave the way for new paradigms for computing technology and interface that will have broad implications including dramatic reduction in the size, weight, cost, and learning curve for using computers. The more people interact with easy-to-use computers, the more they will expect this type of interface from other technologies. I'm optimistic the computer industry, with Apple leading the charge, will ultimately live up to these expectations. I can't wait for these expectations to be realized.

1 comment:

thinking said...

Apple is really the only company that can lead this charge.

They are the only one with the vision and focus on usability to pull this off.