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Jan. 3 2010 - 4:47 am | 3,598 views | 0 recommendations | 14 comments

The Apple tablet and its potential

Image courtesy of Gizmodo

When rumors of an Apple tablet started surfacing again, I thought, “Why would I want that? I have a 15″ Macbook Pro and an iPhone. What could a tablet do that my laptop and phone can’t?” The idea of a tablet seemed pointless and cumbersome. We have laptops, feature-rich mobile phones, eBook readers and netbooks – why would anyone want another device to throw into the mix? Instead of acting like a crotchety curmudgeon, I gave it some serious thought and realized that I was being just as shortsighted as Joe Wilcox of BetaNews where he sums up what I used to feel:

So I’ll assert what should be obvious to anyone thinking rationally and not emotionally: Tablet is a nowhere category. For all the hype about an Apple tablet , it is at best a niche product. The world doesn’t need an Apple tablet, no matter what the hype about rumored features or regardless of what actually releases (if anything).

via The world doesn’t need an Apple tablet, or any other | Betanews.

If I had read that two months ago, I’m sure I couldn’t have agreed more. But things are different now and I see far more potential than Wilcox does, especially when he says the world doesn’t need a tablet regardless of rumored features. I take that as saying, “It doesn’t matter what kind of potential this thing has, we don’t need it.” Clearly, the author isn’t seeing potential, he’s seeing only limitations. He says, “I haven’t read any online analysis or commentary seriously asking what an Apple tablet would be used for or what is the addressable market.”

Well, Joe, allow me.


One of the big arguments is that an Apple tablet falls into a “nowhere category” because much of what it is expected to do overlaps with the functions of existing devices.

Dalrymple couldn’t give me any good functions that can’t be done with iPhone. He can surf the Web, run applications, send e-mail, share digital content, consume digital content and more using iPhone. Apple’s rumored tablet — if there really is one — can’t functionally be all that different from iPhone, which also is a tablet.

If you’re checking email, browsing the web and computing, there are laptops and smartphones that can easily handle that. Reading electronic books? Sony, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are all over it. But if there is one thing Apple has always done well in the past, it’s to innovate. I’ve often found myself thinking, “Why didn’t anyone else think of that?” So, what could a tablet possibly do that current devices can’t?

More than just another iPhone

Ten years ago, almost no one imagined that it would be possible to carry tens of thousands of songs, movies, pictures and TV shows in your pocket on a single device. When the iPod, iPhone and iTunes came along, the way we purchased and consumed media, and the devices we carried, dramatically changed. An Apple tablet can cause just as much of a revolution as the iPod and iPhone.

Imagine, instead of going to the book store, purchasing books on iTunes like you can on Amazon for the Kindle. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but what if you could do the same with a magazine subscription? Esquire recently put out an interactive, augmented reality magazine but it was still made with paper. How about interactive magazines, with video and sound, on a tablet? Sure, magazines are already available online, but many articles are truncated unless you pay to register or subscribe. I’d like to see a podcast-style subscription where you pay, just like you would for your magazines via snail mail, and your magazine automatically downloads every single month when it’s available. If I can get all of my monthly copies of Fast Company, Wired, Time and Esquire packed into a 7″ or 10″ tablet, sign me up. Think of all the paper that can be saved!

Wilcox argues:

Some Apple tablet defenders will write in comments about the publishing possibilities, such as ebook functionality to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook or the Sony Reader. Amazon had a great holiday season selling Kindle, which would seem to validate the idea that an Apple tablet supporting ebooks could sell as well or better. But most everyone is looking at Kindle the wrong way. The question shouldn’t be “How many Kindles did Amazon sell?” but “How many more Kindles could Amazon have sold if its ebook reader software wasn’t available for iPhone?” For many users, iPhone is good-enough ebook reader.

I’ve obviously gone beyond books, but let’s tackle the other issue here: the iPhone.

The iPhone’s size wouldn’t be ideal for browsing a magazine, and I find reading books on the iPhone is a chore. No, it’s not a “good-enough” eBook reader (and I highly doubt the iPhone directly impacted and limited Kindle sales; give me a break). Devices like the Kindle and Nook use e-ink and can’t display color or video. (Some people say using a LCD screen would make reading difficult for extended periods of time, but I’m on my computer reading all day without any complaints.)

Not Portable? Quite The Contrary

Another issue that Wilcox takes against the an Apple tablet is portability. At either 7 or 10 inches, it’s too big.

That brings me back to my assertion that iPhone is functional enough, more portable and better connected than could be any 7-inch or 10-inch tablet. Would you buy an iPhone and iPod touch? I expect that for most people the answer will be “No.”

Okay, ignoring the iPod touch non-sequitur, would a 10-inch tablet really be all that cumbersome to lug around? I can think of several instances where I’d rather have a tablet to surf the web, watch TV and movies and read eBooks instead of my big, heavy laptop (like relaxing on the beach or sitting through a long flight). I’ll argue that anywhere my laptop can go, which I consider quite portable, a tablet can. Can the iPhone just as easily do the same? Sure, but I don’t like reading on it or watching videos of any kind – the screen is just too small.

Education and Enterprise

We spend so much time talking about entertainment, media and the Internet that it’s easy to forget about business and education. A few days ago, I was speaking with Rosa Golijan of Gizmodo and she mentioned the idea of getting textbooks on a tablet. Imagine that! Instead of purchasing heavy and enormous paper books, we could get them digitally onto a tablet. Textbooks could potentially become cheaper this way since there is no paper or printing necessary, and a “rental” option could be considered: you pay for your textbook at the beginning of the semester, and like renting a movie on iTunes, it expires after a certain amount of time. When the quarter or semester is over, your textbook vanishes from your tablet. This is also good news for the environment: books and subsequent editions and updates can easily be made electronically.

For business and enterprise, a tablet could easily replace POS machines (no, not that “POS”) and handsets, clipboards, notepads that take up space in supply rooms, organizers and so much more. The question isn’t “What can a tablet do?” It’s “What can’t it do?” Pointing out its limitations, well before it has even hit the market, I might add, is just as foolish as everyone who lambasted the iPhone. No one wants a smartphone without a keyboard – who wants to type on a screen?!

Redefining Personal Computing

Joe Wilcox insists that an Apple tablet has no real market, saying, “For all the hype about an Apple tablet, it is at best a niche product.” Okay, maybe I can agree with that much but does it necessarily imply that it won’t succeed if or when it is released? Surprisingly, he doesn’t stop there:

The smartphone, a category where iPhone already redefines “the experience of personal computing.” The smartphone is good enough and it’s affordably priced. In most mass-market product categories, particularly technology, good enough defines success.

No. “Good enough” does not define success, especially in technology. What was Wilcox thinking?! Would we have the iPod today if Apple thought most MP3 players were good enough? Would the iPhone exist if cell phones were just good enough? I mean, they made phone calls and sent text messages while some even did email and music, what else did phones really need? Would the unibody Macbook exist if plastic Compaqs of yesteryear were good enough?

I don’t mean to sound like an Apple fanboy here, but we are talking about an Apple tablet and the company’s ability to innovate. With all the copycats and other companies playing catch-up in the past, it’s clear that Apple destroys the notion that success is being just “good enough.” Innovation, not apathy, breeds success.

It’s very easy to see where a tablet’s limitations might be, but that’s because all we have to go by is history. Most of us look at laptops, netbooks and smartphones and we can easily say what a tablet might offer and what it can’t. That’s what separates innovators from the rest of us: they can see things most of us don’t and many of them are proud to boast, “No one has ever done this before.” And that is precisely why I’m glad folks like the ones at BetaNews report on technology rather than develop it.

Update: Robert Scoble and MG Siegler of TechCrunch seem to agree that Joe Wilcox failed to see the bigger picture.


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  1. collapse expand

    I’ve been a Macbook Pro convert since August. After a lifetime of PC’s, I will never go back. I’m hooked.
    The iPhone in NYC is a lousy phone thanks to AT&T. As a computer, it’s awesome.
    As for the tablet, sign me up… I just will not wait in any line to get it.

  2. collapse expand

    Marc,

    Coming from a magazine and book publishing background, I think this Apple device has a lot of potential as you say above. Magazines have the opportunity in this age to make themselves more interactive and visually exciting. Moving parts, video, etc. is it still a magazine at that point? Who knows. I think it’s all in how it’s marketed by the publishers. I’d also like to point you to the collaborative effort between several big media corporations to create an e-magazine reader for their dying product. http://www.nypost.com/p/news/business/item_fbmWlk7pBgJnWBr3fHFcAM. As far as i know not many details have been released on this item yet. You probably know about it already, though. I definitely await the Apple Tablet.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Nick,

      Now that you mention it, I don’t know if you could call it a magazine! But as writers, journalists and publishers anxiously await the rumored death of print, reinventing the magazine with cool new features to be devoured on tablets and computers could save them. Just like the idea in the article you linked.

      And, like both you and Lewis, I’m waiting for the Apple tablet, but I definitely won’t be waiting in line.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Regarding the idea that the tablet has niche appeal only, I have to think about the many times I’ve awkwardly used a laptop on the couch or in bed, or when I see someone try to use one to watch a tv show on the bus… the form factor has long been appealing, but nobody has come up with a good combination of hardware and software to pull it off.

    And that demand for control of both the hardware and software is what makes Apple products so good. The tablet will either meet expectations (yawn) or reconfigure how we see the range of devices in our lives, much as the iphone did by putting a computer in our pockets, a computer that can change its capabilities over the air for a few dollars. Sounds obvious now, but if it were, one of the mobile dinosaurs now wailing for relevance would have come up with it themselves.

  4. collapse expand

    This is a good rebuttal to what Wilcox had to say. Adding to this great note would also be the implications such a tablet device would have on the education market. Many educators ban the use laptops in class rooms because it creates a physical barrier (the laptop screen) between the student and the educator, which also results in a psychological barrier, and reduces the effectiveness of the educator. This is why a tablet is a perfect device for education. It allows the educator to create a proper and needed connection between the students, while allowing the students to have the best tools for their education. Plus, something small like this will be able to fit into any book bag/back pack too, instead of the other way around, a laptop bag that made to hold books too.

    Also talking about portability, don’t forget about the art world. One technological advantage that progressed the world of art was paint in tubes, invented in 1841. This allowed painters to easily go out and capture natures fleeting moments, giving rise to the impressionism movement. Artist Renoir said, “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no impressionism.” Progress in technology allows for humans to put their efforts in greater things. Apple creating a tablet is this progress in technology. Imagine what digital artists will be able to do with this new found portability, just like what painters did with their new found portability. Digital expressionism?

    Lastly, if you are a tech geek and and have seen avatar, you would definitely remember the scene where two people were looking at a display, and the guy swipes that information from the main screen to his handheld tablet device. Thats sci-fi technology we can achieve even in about two years with something like the Apple tablet. Imagine what we can do the next time we are reading a great blog, a great article, but have to go to the crapper!

    • collapse expand

      Nice points, Billy! I didn’t know that laptops were getting banned in some classrooms – that’s pretty crazy. So I like your idea about having a tablet in class instead. Also, just imagine how much easier life would be if a professor could wirelessly send a syllabus or PowerPoint slide for everyone to download right in class via Wi-Fi instead of handing out paper or copying notes from a projector? I think the possibilities are endless.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a tech blogger, though that title annoys me. For the past few years, I'd been writing for Boy Genius Report, but I am now at MobileCrunch. You can follow my True/Slant page on Twitter @Digitalia, or if you're interested in what I snack on or when I take cigarette breaks, follow my personal Twitter account @mdflores.

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