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“The Tablet” and gadget portability theory

I haven’t written about the supposed Apple tablet yet because nobody knows anything (including whether it even exists), so everyone’s just talking out of their asses about it.

Normally, I’m perfectly willing to join in and endlessly talk out of my ass about this sort of thing, but I honestly don’t have much to say on it. Nothing I can imagine about “the Tablet” gets me particularly excited. Considering one of its roles as an ebook-reader competitor is interesting, but Apple would never go with e-ink, so the Tablet wouldn’t be as pleasant for long reading as my Kindle.

But John Gruber’s predictions about the device’s role are intriguing:

And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.

[…]

The Tablet, I say, is going to be Apple’s new answer to what you use for personal portable general computing.

Desktops can use fast, cheap, power-hungry, high-capacity hardware and present your applications on giant screens. They can have lots of ports, accept lots of peripherals, and perform any possible computing role. Their interface is a keyboard and mouse, a desk, and a chair. They’re always internet-connected, they’re always plugged in, they always have their printers and scanners and other peripherals connected, and their in-use ergonomics can be excellent. But you can only use desktops when you’re at those desks.

iPhones use slow, low-capacity, ultra-low-power hardware on a tiny screen with almost no ports and very few compatible peripherals. They can do only a small (albeit useful) subset of general computing roles. They are poorly suited to text input of significant length, such as writing documents or composing nontrivial emails, or tasks requiring a mix of frequent, precise navigation and typing, such as editing a spreadsheet or writing code. But they’re always in your pocket, ready to be whipped out at any time for quick use, even if you’re standing, walking, riding in a vehicle, eating, or waiting on a line at the bank. You can carry one with you in nearly any circumstances without noticing its size or weight.

Laptops are a strange, inefficient tradeoff between an iPhone’s portability and a desktop’s capabilities. They don’t satisfy either need extremely well, but they’re much closer to desktops than they are to iPhones. The usefulness and portability gap between a laptop and an iPhone is staggeringly vast (1:00). You don’t have them with you most of the time, they’re big and heavy (even the MacBook Air weighs 10 times as much and consumes about 10 times as much space as an iPhone 3GS), and they can only be practically used while sitting down (or standing at a tall ledge). Ergonomics are awful unless you effectively turn them into desktops with stands and external peripherals. But they can do nearly any computing task that desktops can do, and they’re able to replace desktops for many people.

Many devices (real, vapor, and theoretical) have tried to fill that vast portability gap between laptops and iPhones (even back when they were called PDAs and they didn’t have voice or wireless data capabilities and nobody bought them except rich people and geeks like me). Historically, this has never succeeded in a way that’s even close to mass-market penetration, including impressively forgettable eras as the “palmtop” computer and the Tablet PC.

Slate-type devices, like the thank-God-it-was-canned Smart Display and the it-might-be-released-now-but-who-cares JooJoo, have the limitations of keyboard-less design that make long text entry or complex editing impractical. But their screens are too large to comfortably use for frequent touch input. And they’re too big to fit in a pocket.

Tiny-keyboarded devices, like the thank-God-it-was-also-canned Palm Foleo and nearly every netbook, haven’t proven to be useful to most people because they’re simply smaller laptops, replicating nearly every laptop flaw while forcing compromises on laptop functionality. The keyboards are too small to be anywhere near as useful as a desktop’s or laptop’s, and the devices are far too large to be pocketed.

(I have no idea what the Microsoft Surface is for.)

The text-input mechanism seems to be the big hurdle required to bridge this portability-and-usefulness gap. So far, nobody has nailed it.

I don’t know what Apple has in mind for the Tablet, but they nailed it with the iPhone: after decades of clunky, awkward, mediocre pocket computers, I think it’s safe to say that the large touchscreen is the best input mechanism for them.

But the decision isn’t nearly as clear for a slate-type device with a 7-10” screen, which most people assume to be the Tablet’s form factor. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution. No device in this category has ever even been close to good. This — and Jobs’ toilet comment, as mentioned in John’s article — is what kept me doubting the Tablet’s existence for so long. But even the most conservative intelligence-gathering indicates that the Tablet project is extremely likely to be not only real, but close to release. (Although the late-January event seems a bit soon and could plausibly be for other products, like iLife.)

I see two possible outcomes: either Apple has come up with a radical new input method for this form-factor that will overcome the fundamental problems that made every other similar device suck, or the Tablet isn’t this form-factor.

(Sure, there’s a third possibility: that Apple is repeating the mistakes of similar products and making their own JooJoo or Foleo. But that’s too unlikely — and stupid — for me to take seriously.)

Given that the reliable information we have to go on is… absolutely nothing, either outcome seems equally likely. I predict the new-input-method solution. I have doubts that such a product could be as much of a replacement for general-purpose portable computing as John predicts, but I’m wrong a lot.

I’ve learned never to say that Apple can’t or won’t do something simply because it’s a significant technical or design challenge.

And while I’m talking out of my ass about this like everyone else, “iSlate” is a stupid name. I’ll predict that the product’s name won’t contain “tablet”, “slate”, or the “i” prefix.

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