iSlate(iTablet?)-Paradigm Shifting the Apple Way

Posted by on December 26, 2009 in Essay, iPhone/iPad | 0 comments

So it looks like the Apple fanboi community is whipping itself up to the near-ritualistic semi-annual frenzy in speculation over the much rumored, and denied, and rumored again tablet device.

In the spy biz, it’s called “chatter.”  That is, when the communications circuits of various targets-of-interest come alive one can safely conclude that something big is about to happen. And the chatter on the Mac-circuits is deafening.

In the weeks before each new iPhone or iPod is released, the chatter slowly reveals each tasty morsel via leaks, rumors of rumors, hidden codes buried deep within web server logs, photos from Mr. Blurrycam (that may or may not be faked), and cases from Chinese companies who bribed the manufacturers into getting a peek so they could get a head start on things. And when it comes to the long and tortured history of the mythical tablet, this nerdly striptease might finally be reaching its apex.

We now know that Apple is planning a major product announcement on January 26 in San Francisco. Supposedly a few select developers have been contacted to ensure their apps could run on larger screened devices. References to an iPhone OS “4.0” have been showing up in web servers and the supply chains for screens larger than an iPhone and smaller then a MacBook have cranked into overdrive.

In Apple’s history, they may not have always been the first to the party with a particular technology, but they always push the envelope when they finally arrive. Part of the Apple design ethos is to examine an existing technology, find its weaknesses and improve it. Too many companies do things that are cool just for coolness’ sake, or take the attitude that “good enough is good enough,” whereas Apple waits to get things right.

They didn’t invent MP3 players. They perfected them. They didn’t invent the GUI they perfected it.

Case in point: The great Cut-and-Paste controversy of aught-7.  From day one, the iPhone OS received heaps-o-criticism about the lack of something as basic as cut-and-paste.  I sincerely doubt that on hearing this, Mr. Jobs slapped his forehead and said “Dang! I knew we forgot something!!” No doubt it was part of the plan, but the iPhone’s different UI model wouldn’t work with the traditional approach. Both Windows Mobile and Palm for example (Palm! Hah!), had c&p because their interfaces closely modeled that of desktop systems. This included a dropdown menu that could hold the cut/copy/paste commands. The iPhone’s OS has no such luxury, so it was necessary for Apple to develop a new approach, and one that would be as good or better then the other systems. I imagine that they could very well have crafted several different designs, spent a lot of time refining and testing them to find the one that clearly worked better without menus while handling the problem of fat fingers covering the text that you need to see. What they eventually came out with is brilliant and really raised the bar for everyone else, much to their annoyance.

Apple didn’t invent the App Store. There were a number of stores for third party smartphone applications, none of which were particularly good. For all of its faults, the iPhone owes much of its success to the simplicity and elegance of the App Store.

iSlate 2

iSlate 2

One can expect the same treatment for the As-Yet-Unannounced-Device. As the Netbook craze took off a couple ofyears ago, it illuminated a new market between laptops and smartphones: Cheap lightweight devices for causal Internet browsing and light work. Apple wasn’t into “cheap” and the notion of creating a little “me too” mini-laptop (like my cuddly little Dell Mini-9) didn’t match with their “do it better” philosophy either.  So they needed to “either do it better” or not do it at all.

So armed with this it becomes pretty easy to determine the characteristics of the device, now rumored (again!) to be called the iSlate. First note that Apple has attempted in the past to leverage people’s familiarity with one class of device by creating a completely new class, while still superficially seeming like the first. The Apple ][ was a good example of this. While it wasn’t the first personal computer it was one of the real early success stories. Why? For one thing, instead of coming out a silvery futuristic box with flashing lights that would only appeal to pimply-faced SF types because it was like, really awesome, it looked like something that could already be found in people’s homes: a common typewriter. Lower on the awesomeness scale, but higher on the friendly scale.

If the new device is meant to replace netbooks and a variant on netbooks, e-readers, then expect it to come in one and probably two sizes: a 7 to 8” screen, similar to a medium sized book. And a 10 to 11” screen similar to a magazine.  Yummy.

Perhaps the weakest point of any touch-screen or netbook device has been the keyboard. The iPhone’s flyup-letter feature was an elegant solution to the real problem of fat fingers covering the characters. Still, it’s no substitute for a physical keyboard. Over the past several years, work has been slowly moving along on tactile feedback for touch-screens. Blackberry tried to be too clever with the Storm’s clickable screen. And now we know that Apple has apparently been working on things with a 3D touch screen surface. Being able to both outline character keys and perhaps offer a slight bit of depression when clicked will go a very long way towards perfecting such a virtual keyboard. Not to mention the side benefits of having a surface that could switch into brail.

Now add a hard drive, a separate DVD-drive (probably a reworked Air-drive) and an optional physical keyboard with a built in kickstand, and you have the iSlate.

The OS will most likely be a variant of the iPhone system, taking advantage of the depth of iPhone software already available. It would be a very smart move to include the iPhone simulator developers currently have, so users can run favorite apps without having to wait for a port. However, the main difference in the development environment will naturally be in the UI. The UIKit for the iPhone was designed for a small portrait screen, with dialogs typically filling the entire display. Obviously things such as list dialogs don’t need a full 7” screen. So the final UI will probably be a cross between the iPhone and the standard desktop experience: more stand-alone dialogs, but with larger widgets for finger use. And obviously there will be extensions for the tactile capabilities of the new screen. I can imagine doing a version of Distant Suns with the stars rendered with a bump besides the normal graphics, allowing sightless users to “feel” the sky.

Price these babies between $500 and $1000, and watch again as news reporters camp out with the faithful in front of the local Apple store, seeing their eager, and innocent faces waiting to commune with the future, while other less smitten lovers, or those with Real Jobs wait until the next day.

But of course, I could be entirely wrong and on January 26 Apple may instead introduce a Puce colored iPod with automatic tint control.

Whatever happens, bring it on!