I'm Afraid an Apple Tablet Would Be Stupid

Illustration for article titled I'm Afraid an Apple Tablet Would Be Stupid

This week, Apple gave us minor hardware upgrades, while a little company made a linux tablet. This might leave you wishing for an Apple tablet, but that could be a stupid thing to ask for.


I mean, really, ask yourselves this: How would you use such a thing differently than a laptop? Tablets have typically been great in note taking environments as giant, battery-constrained, heavy digital notepads in the field for pro writers and medical types or soldiers or construction workers.

But for consumers, the most obvious path is the appliance route, making it a simple web browsing machine, with some basic mail and media playback. Things netbooks and laptops can handle and have been handling. I admit, a netbook type tablet is the right form factor for enjoying media casually, away from a desk or livingroom. It fits between — actually — a TV and a Notebook, and is more portable than either. That makes it ideal for reading certain media like electronic magazines (when they're available) and TV shows, movies, and other video clips in portable places. What does this mean?

It means that a tablet is the perfect machine...for reading websites and movies on the toilet. And yeah, um, my laptop can do that already.

Let's talk about the UI a bit more. If the machine has a pop up keyboard, like an iPhone, you can also assume it may have a pen, like all recent tablet prototypes and models have. Either, or both.

But both of those ideas kind of suck for people raised on true keyboards.

I was raised on a QWERTY and I've almost failed penmanship and aced typing class. And the trend is that more people focus on typing than cursive. And as far as using the pop up keyboard occasionally, I can use these fine. Very quickly in fact. But the majority of the world hates these too and typing all day on one of these could be maddening, even at a greater size, no matter how fluent you might get. Do you place it on the table every time you type so you can use it like a full sized keyboard? Or do you hold it in two hands, like and iPhone, and try to peck away, even though reaching across the layout of the QWERTY would be much harder on a bigger device with a bigger key set? None of the typing logistics really matter if this is mostly a media consumption device. But the net appliance theory doesn't really work for me.


The cost of such a nice screen and the surrounding hardware is going to be at, oh, I'd guess $500, if not $700 more with Apple tax. That's too much money for a machine that can't run all the OS X apps out there on the desktop version, too much for what's basically a giant ipod touch. It's also more than a regular old hackintosh'd Dell netbook.

So it has to be a laptop variant, with all the power of an full OS X laptop to make a difference to me. There are two ways this can be done. The old way is to take OS X and slap on those UI components we talked about, the pen and soft keyboard, as well as some OCR software for translating your chicken scratch into text. That's what Microsoft did, and well, how many Tablet PC users do you know? Not many, I bet!


The new way to make a tablet? Well, I have no idea what the new tablet UI is. And neither does anyone in computing. It's going to come down to how the UI works and I can't even imagine what it would be like.

If Apple is going to make a tablet, they're not going to slap on some UI extensions, they're going to figure out a way to really use the form factor and make it a remarkable useful and significantly different device that justifies the loss of the efficient hard keyboard and cost of the touchscreen while being competitive in price somehow with the subsidized mini-tablets that fit in your pocket, the iPhones. But somehow, I doubt there's a paradigm shift here waiting to be unlocked, because again, the tablet isn't just an old idea, its an ancient idea.

The aspirational design for the tablet is pretty straight forward, and has been around, depending on your definition, since the 1960s or WW2 or the late 1800s, depending on which patents you look at. Or longer if you consider the stone tablet. The idea has been there, and has been flawed when translated to our digital world and weird and not much beyond basically what I called it earlier: an oversized, battery constrained, expensive digital version of a paper notebook. But, with internet video. Not so great!




It's largely true that tablets in general aren't as useful as they should be, but this because the form factor isn't completely defined.

The key innovation for tablets, whether from Apple or any other computer maker, is to make it a dockable keyboard. A touchscreen on either the a desktop or laptop isn't the proper place for touch input to be occurring. It simply isn't ergonomic and not the correct use of the primary display. The natural place for a touchscreen is where the keyboard currently is. Apple was on to this with their rationale behind the touchscreen keyboard on the iPhone. The keyboard should be configurable dependent on the application.

Tablets need to take this concept a step further. Tablets should dock to primary displays and the tablet should then become the keyboard or input device dependent on the application.