Can Apple save the Tablet?

by Chris Howard Aug 24, 2005

The uptake of the Tablet PC has not been to expectations. Roger Kay on Technology Pundits has a very good article on the failure of the Tablet PC - thus far. As he says:

Those early forecast curves were truly exponential, but you’d need some sort of rocket fuel to hit 14 million by 2007.

Can Apple do for Tablet computing what it did for mobile music?

Well, if I’m going to have any idea of the answer to that question, I’m going to have to put down my keyboard and pick up my pen…

From this point on I’m writing with a pen on a Wacom tablet. Can you spot the difference? You could if you saw this before l error corrected! Ink, formerly known as Inkwell does handwriting recognition reasonably well. As one who used a Palm for a few years - even to begin writing a novel - the Apple handwriting recognition is good, although less reliable than Palm’s Graffiti. It is a little awkward writing on the Wacom as you have to watch the screen, not the tablet - which would obviously not be an issue with a Tablet Mac. And you do need print, it doesn’t read script. There are a few symbols to learn such as new paragraph and space. You can do backspace, cut, copy, paste and more but I found editing much easier on a keyboard. And if you don’t dot your letter “i” they become capitalized - something I rarely do. Error correction isn’t easy - you can cross out words which then leaves a symbol, such as “#”. Again, I accept my mistakes and edit later on the keyboard.

One thing we know about Steve Jobs and Apple, they can revolutionize a market. When the iMac G4 came out, I dubbed it Applutionary. They do seem to create their own evolution and revolution. They it did with the Apple II, Mac, Newton, iPod and PowerBook. It won’t be long either before they do it with portable video. Looking at that list you wouldn’t really ask “Can they?” you’d assume they will. Bill’s probably even waiting for Apple to enter the market to ignite it.

Kay also asks, “But what is the killer app that’s going to drive the horizontal market?” He can’t find the answer to that and I can’t either. A “killer app” is one that produces broad mainstream take up, one that makes people switch.

Is there one? What more can we do with computers that we aren’t already, particularly a portable tablet computer. What application would make us say “My next computer has to be a tablet.”? What do we want it for? To fill out forms? Or do we want to do word processing in a more natural way, with a pen?

No, I think the question is more like, what will be the killer OS? Can Apple come in and show how it’s done and possibly even pick up market share? It’s the interface as I’m finding as I write this with pen, that will make or break tablets.

Having written some 300 words on a tablet, what do l think? The writing is fine, I probably have to learn to be a bit neater. But the editing? Give me a keyboard, please. Despite that, I still think Apple can make a decent Tablet Mac with better handwriting recognition and simplified editing. Dare I say, I’m even expecting an announcement at Apple Paris Expo - on September 20th - my birthday! How appropriate. I wonder if they’ll send me one?

As alluded above though, even if Apple make the best tablet computer can they win a tablet war? Can they become a dominant player, as they once were in laptops?  A little story to illustrate what I think…

Moses came to the people and the people saw that he carried two tablets. He spoke unto them: “The good lord Jobs and the dark lord Gates, have given me these two tablet computers. From this day forward, we will use them compute, to count our oxen and sheep, to do our tax returns, to write our letters to the editor.”

The people were in awe and came to look at these strange devices. They saw the Jobs one was white and bore the symbol of an apple and it looked good, and it was good. The people were happy. Then they looked at the one from Gates, it was black and bore the symbol of Hell - oh hang on - Dell, and they saw that it was butt ugly, it was more difficult to use, less reliable. The people were saddened by it. There was division though among the people - some liked the elegance and usability of the white one from lord Jobs. Others preferred the familiarity of the black one - for it ran Windows and they all knew Windows, to change would not easy for them.
Some bought and used the white one. And they were happy. Most though bought the black one for it ran the software they already owned. And they too were happy.

Well, happyish. They saw that their Apple counterparts were most satisfied and they grew envious. But the dark lord Gates came before them and told them he would smite the white enemy. And so he did and he made lots of money. And the people were happy with their black tablet computers, for they made excellent serving trays.

(If you’re a Windows zealot, you might want interchange the good and bad of Jobs and Gates in this story, but this is an Apple website, whaddya expect?!:))

600 words written by pen, and much editing with the keyboard, I’ve kinda lost my enthusiasm for a tablet Mac. One oddity I discovered with Ink, was it has a bad habit of adding double spaces between words. A search and replace found 320 occurrences. That’s more than 50% of the spaces between words. Just wait while I do a little test…. Ok. I just tested and found that it puts a double space in when my words are too close together. When I space them wide - even very wide, it only puts in one space. Go figure!

So, can Apple do it?
Kay says:

Most people I know who have bravely carried a tablet about, proclaiming that it’s the wave of the future, have abandoned it after a few months at most.

Not very encouraging for Apple. But they have revolutionized, reinvented and reinvigorated markets before. I expect they will do it again. But what twists will they bring to it? A touch screen keyboard? Pre-emptive text? (that was a neat add-on on my Palm)

Tim Anderson over at IT Writing wrote in October 2003 about tablet PCs. He makes the point that basically said that tablets aren’t much good for writing large blocks of text - which is what I’ve found with the pen. Consequently they will only capture a niché market (form fillers) until something special happens. Will that be Apple?

Ink needs some work before it’s ready for use with a tablet, but I don’t imagine Apple have been sitting on their hands. Currently it’s at version 1.2 When the Tablet Mac comes, expect at least version 2.0. Apple do have their work cut for them. But they’ve done it before and I reckon they’ll do it again. I reckon when they bring out a Tablet Mac, it will be something special.

And Bill will be saying, “Why didn’t we think of that?” (And then he’ll go and copy it and make a fortune - smiting the Tablet Mac along the way.)


  • Interestingly, MacRumors have just published a story about a Handwriting Engineer vacancy at Apple.

    I’d love to see an Apple tablet in a small enough form factor (A6/A5) with a hi-res screen.

    I’m getting into the GTD fad (Google it, if you don’t know what that is), and something to help with planning and slightly larger than my Treo 650, which could also run all my OS X programs would be a $deity-send.

    Using it as a desktop PDF reader for all my apps electronic-only manuals would be nice as well.

    Besides which it would be nice to show Scoble how a tablet should be done <bg>.

    andywar had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 6
  • And I swear I knew nothing about that ad! Otherwise I would definitely have quoted it.

    Although it vindicates that Ink needs a bit of work and Apple are planning a Tablet, I doubt now there’ll be any announcements in Paris.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • another thing I noticed was Intel talking about running full blown OSes on palmtop and handheld sized computers at their roadmap announcements.

    xbaz had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 11
  • Handwriting recognition is not really meant for long texts as you have noticed, but it is great for note taking, say in lectures, especially if you need to draw the odd diagram, picture, formula - you cannot do that on a notebook.

    All Apple has to do is undig the Newton GUI, which is excellent, and buff it up a little to match the OS X look. Desktop GUIs do not work well with pens. Throw in a high-res screen, AirPort, Bluetooth, Infrared, a very energy efficient HD and a battery providing for 10-12h real worktime. Make the whole thing no bigger than a Newton2100, but with a bigger screen and a slightly slimmer profile. Market it to people who are still using paper a lot (students).

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 371
  • I still think Apple will have a tough sell with a tablet.  I believe it’s true that the OS isn’t enough… You need to have the application that utilizes the advantages of the form factor for it to be a viable product that people will choose instead of a notebook.  Without that killer app, there’s no reason to choose the tablet as a notebook alternative.  “Because it’s cool” doesn’t sell enough boxes to make the product profitable. 

    I think it more likely that we might see a new Newton-like device that isn’t full sized tablet PC, but more like a PDA on steroids (with iPod capability plus PDA capability, and more). It might approach a notebook/tablet in CPU capability, but in a smaller form factor. I’m thinking something as large as the old Message Pads in screen real estate (about 5 inch diagonal), but less bulky… perhaps as thin as a current iPod or Palm devices.

    But it may still have problems selling outside of vertical markets.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 243
  • The 2100’s display is about 6,1” diagonal. Which is plenty already, considering you would get a much higher resolution these days.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 371
  • An Apple tablet is not going to be about work. It’s not a desktop replacement, or even a notebook replacement.

    All this talk about using a word processor on a tablet is just plain silly. That’s not what they’re about.

    An Apple tablet will not even be about media CREATION (a la iMovie or iDVD), it will be all about media/Internet CONSUMPTION.

    In the bad old days, computers were used to create things: word processing documents, spreadsheets, and databases. This was all about data CREATION (i.e., work). B-O-R-I-N-G. This is not consumer-oriented. Apple is a consumer company, right?

    In the new days of a tablet computer, it’s all about CONSUMPTION, not creation. (Plus, you can make profits off consumption—think music & video with DRM).

    What constitutes 99% of what you do on a home computer?

    1. Surf the web (consumption)

    2. Read e-mail (consumption) (maybe write a few e-mails, so a little bit of creation there—something small enough that using Inkwell is reasonable for)

    3. Listen to music (consumption)

    4. Watch videos (consumption) (well you’ll do more of that on a tablet when Apple has the iTunes Video Store fully functional wink )

    5. PDA-type stuff (calendar, addresses, etc.) (again, mostly consumption with a little bit of creation thrown in when you have a new contact or appointment to enter with Inkwell)

    *THAT* is what a tablet is suited for. Just like a PDA/iPod hybrid—except that it’ll have a larger wide-screen view for videos, and much more powerful than a PDA.

    This is probably why Sir Steve killed off the rumored Apple PDA project—a small screen PDA isn’t interesting or sexy enough. Add a hard disk, wireless access to the internet, and a widescreen LCD, and now we’re talking sexy.

    Just like the iPod, everyone in your house will have an Apple Tablet (but it’ll probably be called a PowerPod or something). There might be one or two desktops at home that’ll be media servers (maybe an upgraded Mac Mini?). But the tablet will be a media thin client.

    At least, that makes the most sense to me, with a little bit of wishful thinking dust thrown in. grin

    matters had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 21
  • the weakness of all tablets to date is that they try to replicate the functionality of a laptop, so what you get is a laptop with a touch screen. this is the wrong paradigm. as with the ipod, the tablet must be an extension of your mac, not a replacement for it. to this end, i’d think an apple tablet should

    1) provide access to all your major desktop apps….mail, safari, ical, address book, calculator, stickies, etc.

    2) though a high-speed wireless connection, you can access music through itunes, images through iphoto & movies through imovie

    3) tablet can be wireless remote for keynote, itunes & even ipod

    4) tablet can integrate with new apple consumer products like a new itunes movie store or DVR/media playback device

    now the tablet extends the usefulness of the iapps and the mac. it ties together your entertainment system with your computer and yes, you can do some kinds of office stuff to….but it’s not about word processing. it’s about access to digital information and control of all our various gizmos.

    give me a carbonate shell with a large 6’’ OLED or better yet, LEP plastic screen. minimal ports, great battery life & a pen-optimized OS with a focus on flexibility and customization. under $1000.  oooh, baby!

    david randall had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 10
  • All this talk about filling forms and handwriting recognition is nice, but the killer app is staring us in the face. Apple would market a tablet as the newest member of the iPod family. The app is the iTunes Movie Store.

    innate had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 12
  • For me, I want the tablet as a replacement. If it doesn’t have handwriting recognition that is comfortable with large blocks of text, then it will be just a niché product - even if it is the fabled video iPod. I can’t see video being the killer app, since you can watch video on laptops already.

    The convertible model is okay, but cumbersome and heavy looking.

    I probably didn’t really say it in the article, but even though the handwriting recognition of Ink was average and the editing required the keyboard, I felt very comfortable using the pen, and it would be my preferred input device, especially for large blocks of text. It’s just gotta take some to iron out the kinks.

    Apple needn’t even bother with a Tablet Mac if it’s going to be a niché product - as tablets already are. How tiny is that niché market? If Apple could only capture 5% of it, it couldn’t be cost effective.

    Will we all be using PowerTablets and iTablets instead of PowerBooks and iBooks in 5 years time? If that’s not Apple’s goal, they should forget about the Tablet Mac.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • > If it doesn’t have handwriting recognition that is comfortable with large blocks of text, then it will be just a niché product - even if it is the fabled video iPod. I can’t see video being the killer app, since you can watch video on laptops already.

    With all due respect, Chris—ever hear of an iPod?

    What you’re saying about video is exactly what people said about music and the iPod. “Why spend $500 to play music on an iPod when you can do it on your laptop?”

    Because it’s *portable*, it’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s *cool*.

    And now iPods’re everywhere and Apple is rich.

    P.S.—If I’m not mistaken, it’s just plain old “niche”, not “niché”. grin

    matters had this to say on Aug 24, 2005 Posts: 21
  • What you’re saying about video is exactly what people said about music and the iPod. “Why spend $500 to play music on an iPod when you can do it on your laptop?”

    Few differences though, Matters

    - Portable music is quite happy to be carried in your pocket. A laptop is not a practical device for taking your music wherever you go. And the Walkman had proven people wanted a small pocketable device for listening to music on the go.

    - Portable video needs to be a small enough screen and device that people don’t say “I’ll just take my laptop”. A Tablet Mac won’t satisfy that requirement. So again, the tablet has no market if it’s main claim is video. And if portable video is small,  does it need a stylus input? Not unless Apple plan for it to be a PDA as well.

    - A Tablet Mac will cost as much as a laptop, if not more, and probably be around 12” to begin with. Apple don’t have a reputation for coming out with cheaper versions of hardware than the PC world - and Tablet PCs are more expensive than laptops. So don’t expect a cheap Tablet Mac.

    So we can’t really compare the iPod and portable music, to a Tablet Mac and portable video. I can’t see people lugging around a 12” Tablet Mac just so they can look cool watching movies as they walk down the street or ride the subway. That example highlights another problem of portable video - it’s only good if your *not* walking, jogging, exercising etc. It really is limited to riding the subway or bus.

    You can listen to iPods 24 hours a day if you wanted (even in your sleep!) The window for watching portable video is about 2 hours - an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening whilst commuting.

    I just can’t see an expensive 12 inch device selling in huge numbers just because it plays video. Need a better reason than that, and that reason has to be that it can replace your laptop.

    PS You’re not mistaken about niche. thanks. I’m surprised no one picked me up on that earlier.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 25, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • Apple could have released a tablet a long time ago but they are waiting for something. I think that something is an iTunes deal with movie studios.

    It goes well beyond portable video, competing with TiVo, movies on demand, Blockbuster and Netflix. You could buy or rent a movie from the comfort of your living room and stream it to your home entertainment center. There is definitely a market for that.

    And of course you could still do tablet stuff like taking notes and browsing the web. It’s just that the iTunes Movie Store is the feature which will differentiate it from all the Windows tablet failures.

    innate had this to say on Aug 25, 2005 Posts: 12
  • Very good thoughts about video Chris. I like the “home remote” idea, a device that gives you full access to iTunes, iTunesAV (just making it up), quicktime, whatever. If you have ever used iTunes on a “server” Mac in combination with AirPort Express, an i/Powerbook 12”, and the software “netTunes” you know you never want to be without it again, it is that sleek. Now imagine the “tablet” was a convertible the size of a Newton 2100. I keep coming up with that size because it is just right, neither too big not too small. You would use it instead of the i/Powerbook. Since you can completely control iTunes with netTunes it would allow for you to create every iTunes content (playlists, CDs…) in places & positions where you could not work with a notebook. Don’t need the keyboard? Fold it away and draw/paint a nice cover for the CD you just made. Add doodles to photos, add a comments layer to PDF/Textfiles, tell the server Mac to send video to your TV, or stream video to the tablet if you like… the iApp possibilities are endless. A mere “consumption” model clearly forgoes the potential.
    Try this wordy scenario: In the morning, you leave for work / campus / school, whatever. Your tablet in its charging cradle has already gently woken you up with a timed start of Garbage’s “Push It” which you selected the night before. While you had breakfast it downloaded your favourite websites, the 25min sitcom you missed yesterday, and synced specified data (iCal & Co, work projects, diary etc.) with your main PC. You grab it, shove it in your bag, and off you go. On your 30min subway ride you listen to your iPod while reading your websites. You notice a playlist you’ve been working on is not perfect, so you quickly connect the iPod to the tablet & edit. You notice the playlist lacks a critical song, so you activate bluetooth and use iTunes on the tablet to connect to iTMSmobile via your cellphone. You find & sample the song, but choose for the “buy&download; later” option in order to save time & cost. It will download as soon as your tablet has access to a WLAN again. At your workplace, the tablet automatically grabs the latest files & appointments from your workplace PC. During the day you jot down several small notes during meetings, edit a couple of work projects at the desktop PC, and give a keynote presentation to a co in a cramped elevator. At lunchtime you relax outside on a bench reading a newspage. Thanks to the improved display you can sit in the sun doing so, while your laptop toting colleagues shiver in the shade or try to cover their screens with their jackets like photographers 100 years ago. Before you go home, the tablet syncs all relevant data with your workplace PC again. On the way you watch the sitcom you brought along. Halfway through your phone rings, autopausing the video & you answer it using iChat on the tablet. It’s your partner reminding you to fetch some groceries from a new store & sending you a list and a map through the iChat interface. Following the map in your hand you quickly find the store, ticking items off the list as you collect them. At home, you put the tablet back in its cradle. As soon as it enters your home network it starts to sync. As you sit down at your home desktop after dinner, the song you needed for your playlist is already put in your home library, and while you glance over some of the files you brought from work you look forward to watching the end of your sitcom on your TV, knowing you will just have to press play and it will start right where it was interrupted earlier.
    As you sure noticed, you *could* do most of this with a laptop, but you would gain a lot of convenience if you had something that is much smaller, much lighter & less obtrusive. A truly personal device that can almost always be with you, has enough power to go though at least one day of work and integrates perfectly and adequately to your needs, allowing for both consumption and creative or office work. All your data is always with you, instead you going where the data is, and you always have full access to it.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 25, 2005 Posts: 371
  • innate and Bad Beaver, I agree with you both in principal. The things you suggest would be pretty cool, but as you acknowledge BB, you could also do them with a laptop.

    The device you describe BB, the size of a Newton 2100 is simply a souped up PDA. Are Apple planning to re-enter the PDA market? Maybe you’re onto something there. Maybe one step at a time. PDA first, then Tablet.

    Also, the things you suggest, require an additional device (i.e. the tablet or PDA). These aren’t going to be cheap - especially if they have better screens than laptops.

    I guess I’m a bit hung up on the notion that a Tablet, no matter what it does, won’t truly succeed unless it can replace the laptop.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 25, 2005 Posts: 1209
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