The iTablet/MacBook and the Triple Challenge

No sooner did I post my quick take on the CrunchPad/JooJoo than someone wrote me to let me know that of course Apple was going to release a tablet; they’re just refining it, &c., &c.

That may well be the case; after all, Apple famously mocked cellphones and MP3 players before designing and coming out with the iPhone and iPod – and look where we are now!

My contention is that we’ve had tablets for quite some time now. Apple’s not going to release a tablet unless they’re confident that the user experience is spectacular.

I worked at Apple – sure, it was selling stuff, but still. One of my takeaways from my nearly two years there was that design isn’t just how something looks; it’s also how something works.

That’s why Apple takes so long to develop products. Steve Jobs is nothing if not a design dictator, and nothing goes out the door bearing the Once-Bitten Fruit unless it’s satisfied his exacting demands.

I’m not saying that Apple isn’t going to release a tablet of some kind; they already have (hello, iPod Touch!). What I am saying is that they won’t release a tablet unless it blows the current state of the art out of the water.

Look at these mockups. You can find more here, by the way, if you’re interested. They’re either derivative (i.e., larger iPod Touches) or awkward to use.

There’s no imagination there (well, maybe in the first one – but still). You’re either shoe-horning OS X into this form factor (which brings up the challenge of touch-based text entry, something that’s tougher than most folks think) or trying to make iPhone OS work in a larger form factor (which is problematic, because what’s well-designed for the iPhone/iPod Touch likely won’t be for the tablet, at least without some serious jerry-rigging).

There’s one more challenge that I haven’t mentioned: whether you use a capacitive touch screen (what the iPhone/iPod Touch uses, and much better for touch computing, in my opinion) or a resistive touch screen (what tablet PCs use, as well as the god-awful Windows Mobile).

Looking at the video of the CrunchPad/JooJoo, what strikes me is how laggy the touch response of the machine is. The demonstrator has to tap multiple times in order to perform an action. Compare that to the effortless response from an iPod Touch. I can’t help but think that that’s a function of the size of the screen.

Those are the triple challenges facing Apple in designing a tablet. Can they be overcome? Sure – and if Apple doesn’t, someone will. For example, take 10/GUI (which I’ve featured here already).

My guess is that, assuming Apple is working on a tablet, it’s going to do a number of things:

– Blow our minds with how it’s designed – much as the iPhone did. People forget, but prior to its introduction, most iPhone concepts were essentially iPods with a phone jammed in. Like this:

Or this:

Yeah, not even close.

– Replace the MacBook. I’m talking about the lonely 13” white orphan at the bottom of the laptop totem pole. That laptop – as much as I dig mine – sticks out among the rest of Apple’s industrial design, flush with metals of various hues and textures. The only items that it shares a design heritage are the white and black iPhones.

Which brings me to the final thing that Apple is going to do with it, assuming it releases it:

Target ebook readers – and specifically, the education market.

Everyone’s convinced that Apple’s going to release the tablet early next year. I disagree; the triple challenge that I outlined is a tough one to overcome, even for a company like Apple.

Rather than release a tablet, I think they’ll wait till the fall, and have the tablet be the new MacBook. Waiting till autumn gives them even more time to work out kinks, plus it allows them to target incoming school classes – something that’s always been lucrative for Apple.

A tablet makes sense for Apple if it’s not just a single purpose device (like the nook or Kindle), but yet another way to display various forms of content. Waiting till fall lets Apple see how well the various readers do among the public. And it’s not like e-readers haven’t been oriented towards schools – the Kindle DX was partly launched for that purpose, and it’s been a long-standing argument for why e-readers make sense.

My hunch is that Apple sees the burgeoning market in e-readers/small cheap computers as similar to the market in MP3 players prior to the iPod. I suspect that Apple thinks that by biding their time, they can swoop in and capture the market yet again – either in physical share (as with the iPod) or mindshare (as with the iPhone).

Either way, Apple wins. Whether we do is another question, but I have a hard time arguing the opposite given the iPod/iPhone.

Say hello…to the iBook:

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