Some ‘”what if” thoughts on the Apple Tablet


Just what the world needs, right? Yet another post on the rumoured, almost legendary, Apple Tablet.

What I thought I would do here is, putting my personal feelings about Apple and its products aside, talk about what the Apple Tablet would have to be in order for it to be considered (for me) a successful tablet. I have already written about my view on what a modern tablet should look like. I have also written a couple of times on why tablets have failed to sell, and on the adoption of tablets by young people.

I could also write about the new moves by Microsoft and its partners on the tablet front. Unfortunately, there is not much to talk about there. I am not going to go down the path others have and declare the new tablets shown in the keynote to be crap – they just did not show enough to really judge one way or the other, or to be very excited.

So, lets talk about Apple.

My first question about the Apple tablet is this: What is the target market? Is it primarily a consumer product? Or is it targeted at business users? Apple has a good track record, especially in the last decade, of building products for the consumer market. There is no denying that. On the other hand, Apple’s success in the business world (outside of very specific areas like graphic design, etc.) has been limited, probably because it has not been a focus for them. In either case, the question also arises as to what is the target user group in the market? In the consumer market, is the target young people or all age groups? it the target techies or “normals”?

This is an important question, as this will define the features that are important in the product. I must admit that most of my views are driven by business use scenarios. I use my tablet for work first, and for personal use second. I am also in an older age group (in Apple’s market) – I am 47. My preferred mode of interaction is with a stylus – emulating “pen and paper”. I like to scribble notes, I like to make drawings – all part of brainstorming. As i said in a previous post, this is not necessarily how younger people prefer to interact. For the most part, my kids (all in college/university) are not all that comfortable with handwriting, much preferring a keyboard of some kind.

So what are the implications of this question for the Apple tablet? Well, if you are going to produce a device to work in the business work, the fact is (for good or bad) it pretty much has to coexist and play well with the infrastructure in place. Right now, that means it has to handle MS Office documents in a meaningful way. It has to work well with Exchange Server. It has to deal gracefully with authentication in an MS world. Like Microsoft or not, that is the world as it is now, and if you want to be a business device, you have to play nicely in that world.

If it is targeted as a consumer device, this obviously becomes much less important. The consumer market is dominated by browsing, media handling, and social interaction.

A consumer oriented tablet may also be able to succeed without an ink interface. I do not think a business device can. This has hardware implications, as well. If it is not handled properly, ink and touch do not work well together (especially for us lefties). You try to write, and your hand is touching the screen, which is interpreted as a touch and nothing works well. HP has gotten around this by have two digitizers – one for touch and one for the stylus. When the stylus gets close to the screen, the touch digitizer deactivates. THis is not the only way to handle it, but it must be handled if you are going to have both touch and ink. 

The other fundamental question about the Apple tablet (for me) is the OS. What Apple’s plans here? I see four possibilities here:

  1. A variation of the iPhone OS
  2. OSX as is (not likely)
  3. OSX tailored for the tablet
  4. A completely new OS (also not likely)

While I have very successfully and happily used windows (XP, Vista, and 7) on tablets, I have no doubt that a new approach could make things much better – face it, computer interaction has not evolved in a fundamental way since the mid 90s (maybe the mid 80s).

I am hoping that the answer is 3. I really do not want to see the Apple Tablet end up as an iPhone on steroids. I have said before that the tablet could benefit from a completely new interaction paradigm, and it will be interesting to see what Apple can do in that area. Unlike many others, I do not see the iPhone as the ultimate achievement in UI design. It is good as far as it goes, but it certainly does not scale to larger application design.

As much as I dislike Apple, I am definitely eager to see what they can do in this area.

So what is the key to success for the Apple Tablet? Obviously, anything Apple releases will have a certain amount of success within the apple fan base. But is that enough to sustain a tablet product line?

Looking back on the iPhone, when it was launched it enjoyed tremendous success because it was new, cool, and different. That would not have been enough for sustained success, however, without the massive number of applications that have been created for it, with a clean, simple distribution model and low costs. I would argue that the long term success of the iPhone is more due to the App Store than to the device itself.

Similarly, look at the Windows vs Mac battle. If ever there was an opportunity for the Mac to steal market share from Windows than during the Vista fiasco. And while Apple did gain market during this time, it really should have gained more. Why didn’t it? The biggest barrier to most Windows users migrating to Mac (especially corporate users and IT departments) is the lack of application support on the Mac. No matter how much I might like OSX and the Mac hardware, it is no good to me if the applications I need personally or or professionally are not supported.

So the key to long term success of the Apple tablet is application support. It needs to support enough of the applications and environments people use everyday, and it needs an active, dynamic developer community driving excitement like the iPhone has. This has been a fundamental point of failure for the Windows-based tablets – almost no support at all from application developers (even the ones inside Microsoft itself!).

Lets hope Apple does it right – because without some injection of new thinking, I believe the tablet device will die off.

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About

I have been working in the world of technology for 25-odd years. I am an entrepreneur and consultant, focused on software solutions, social networking, and innovation processes. Currently, I am a Principal Consultant with T4G Limited, specializing in Portal Technologies (including SharePoint), software/systems development, service oriented architectures, and many other things which I will probably not remember until I need to use them. Prior to that, I was VP of Technology at Whitehill Technologies, Inc., where I spent almost 9 years helping to grow the company from a start-up to one of the most successful private software companies in Canada. Prior to that I worked on internet conferencing using early VoIP, and on large military communications projects. Before even that, I worked in satellite control, and remote sensing. Going way back to university, my focus was on theoretical physics and astrophysics. Currently my interests revolve around most aspects of software development, from technologies to management, and in the area of defining sustainable, repeatable processes for innovation within technology organizations. I also have a particular interest in Tablet PC technologies – I have been using one for several years, and I love it. On the personal side, I still have a strong interest in all aspects of science, especially physical sciences, as well as philosophy and comparative religion. In addition, I am into music, playing guitar (badly, I am sorry to say), and reading almost anything I can lay my hands on. I am also a member of the IEEE/IEEE Computer Society, and of the Association for Computing Machinery.

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Obligatory Disclaimer
Please keep in mind that any opinions, points-of-view, comments, or other content which I post to this site are mine and mine alone. They in no way reflect the views of my employer, my country, my dog, my cat, or anyone else you can think of. To paraphrase Monty Python, "That is the theory that I have and which is mine, and what it is, too."

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