Five Reasons Why An Apple Tablet Makes Sense Now


Chicago (IL) - With WWDC just around the corner, the stage is set for Steve Jobs’ keynote and the unveiling of the iPhone. But Apple would not be not Apple if there wasn’t a "one more thing ..." portion in his presentation. We have no idea if Jobs indeed has plans for such a segment (he better has ...), but if it is up to us, we are putting our bets on the re-birth of the Newton and the introduction of an Apple UMPC/tablet.

The original Apple Newton (allusion to Sir Isaac Newton’s apple) project started out in 1993 and was described by the company’s CEO at the time, John Sculley, as "personal digital assistant" (PDA). The device was marketed under the name MessagePad, touting features such as handwriting recognition and hardware such as its ARM 610 RISC processor. Jobs returned to Apple in 1998 and scrapped the Newton. Three years ago, he publicly confirmed that Apple had designed its own PDA, but decided not to ship it. At least our colleagues over at AppleInsider believe the project was never really scrapped, claiming Apple has been developing a Mac tablet behind closed doors.

In the meantime, Microsoft developed Origami, a concept for the ultra-mobile class of PCs (UMPCs). While it appeared to be a joint-effort between Microsoft and Intel, Project Origami was foremost excellent marketing that, however, forgot to check how the actual hardware looked like. Today’s UMPCs are usually built around Intel A100/110 (90 nm Dothan core) or VIA C7-M processors that operate in 1 GHz range. UMPCs suffer from being underpowered, a bloated OS (Windows XP Tablet PC Edition or Windows Vista), awkward form factors and usability as well as a battery time that isn’t far away from what you can squeeze out of notebooks. They come in unappealing form-factors and deliver too many compromises. UMPCs typically sell into vertical markets (to field technicians, for example), where they seem to be replacing tablet PCs. Coincidentally, UMPCs are just as expensive as convertible notebooks or tablet PCs, with prices ranging from about $700 to more than $2500.

About one year ago, we said that the UMPC essentially is dead (at least in mass-market terms) and suggested that someone should ask Apple to help design such a device.

We still think the idea of the UMPC is actually great. But the category needs fresh ideas and an all-in-one design including software to make it work and show that it isn’t the niche product we are seeing today. We believe that that Apple can re-think tablets and deliver a mass-market feature set. Apple has fixed product categories before (iPod?) and this category, in our opinion, makes too much sense to watch it die. Here is why.

1. Form-factor and design

Imagine an over-sized iPhone built like a crossover between the iPhone and MacBook Air. The device needs a visibly larger screen to differentiate it from the iPhone, but small enough to keep it portable and at the size of a book that easily slips in your briefcase. Ideal screen size would be 7" - between the 5" MIDs and the 10"+ subnotebooks - to enable comfortable media playback and a convenient content creation capability. Such a "Newton 2" device would benefit from Apple’s proven ability to scrap "unnecessary" features in mobile devices. A larger casing than the iPhone would make room for a larger non-replaceable battery that will extend beyond the 8-hour mark. Besides headphone jack, iPod dock connector and USB, the device would make sense have no expansion ports or optical drive. Instead, the focus is on Wi-Fi, WiMax, Bluetooth.
While the iPhone is not the best device for content creation, for example for social networking or editing documents on a plane trip, such a slightly larger version would be. Perhaps such a device can also reveal what Palm’s ill-fated Foleo should have been.

2. Multi-touch input

UMPCs come with various user interfaces, from touch screens with stylus to slide-out keyboards or a combination of both. But none we know of comes with Apples multi-touch that offers a couple advanced gestures. Apple benefited from multi-touch in many ways and is clearly heading to deploying the technology in all of its products. If multi-touch works well on the iPhone, imagine it on a mobile device with a larger screen. It would eliminate the need for a physical keyboard, while a virtual keyboard would work much better on a screen larger than the iPhone.

3. A great media player and mobile content creation

RIM dismissed the iPhone as great media player and poor mobile phone, but it is interesting to note that Apple’s lead in the personal media player (PMP) space is recognized. If the iPhone is a great media player, a Mac tablet with a larger screen could take you from a smallish screen to a more convenient display. A large screen, extended battery life and a modified version of OS X could make it an attractive device to show off your photos and watch movies on the go. By providing hardware to acquire content (a microphone and a video camera for taking pictures and video), a Newton 2 would have VoIP and videoconferencing abilities over the WiFi or WiMax. Adapting the iLife suite from the Mac, you could easily organize photos, create websites and documents, edit videos and share content online, something today’s UMPCs aren’t really used for.

4. Sweet post pricing

Today’s UMPCs are expensive, with drastically varying price points. Shelling out $2000 for a UMPC doesn’t make sense for many of us. We think that even if Apple charges a premium for its gadgets, it can often justify its prices through design and features. And since Apple is the single most important buyer of flash memory, the economies of scale could help set the price of Newton at an affordable level. Given Mac tablet is a product between a mobile phone and a laptop, you could it to be priced anywhere between the most expensive iPhone ($499) and the cheapest Mac laptop ($1099). $599 - $799 would be an interesting segment that could allow Apple to even compete with devices such as the Asus EeePC.

5. Apple’s value proposition

You may argue that all features mentioned here are more or less present in today’s UMPCs and you we would have to admit that you are right. But there is no tight integration that makes the package easy to use for the average consumer. With its vertical integration, Apple is the only company that is really positioned to reinvent the UMPC category at this time.
Multi-touch, the accelerometer and pinch/zoom gestures sold the iPhone. Newton needs such unique selling points that make headlines. Is it a built-in camera or a handwriting/speech recognition? Multi-touch or accelerometer? We doubt it - these are the features we’ve already became accustomed to with the iPhone. Recent Apple patents may hold the clue, especially the invention that calls for a new-breed of LCD display that can take pictures and record videos, while simultaneously serving as the display in a traditional sense. If the screen becomes the camera, this could be one interesting device

Our take

If there will be a Newton 2, pricing will be key. True, only Apple can get away these days with charging premium for premium-quality gadgets, but even Apple’s customers don’t buy everything. If the company sets the initial price above $1000, it would have a problem selling the device.

And then there is the question: How useful is it? What advantage does it offer over the iPhone and the notebook? The reason why there is little mass market interest in UMPCs is an overall poor design, bloated software and a product people don’t understand. Steve Jobs has recently quoted Henry Ford by saying: "If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked me for a faster horse." There is a value proposition for an Apple tablet such as iPhone plus content creation and notebook minus size, but that may not be enough. If you want to sink yourself deeper into speculations, read this article by AppleInsider which first started out the rebirth of Newton craze.

What’s your take? We’d love to hear what you think of a Mac tablet. Do you think tablets will remain niche category or Mac tablet has the potential to become consumer product somewhere between a mobile phone and a laptop? What features would you expect from Newton that would convince you to part from your money? Share your thoughts with us by writing a comment below.

  • pcwlai
    For my guess, the next "re-invertion" will be the user interface. The next logical step seen from the success of iPhone should lead to the "next generation" user interface with multi-touch and voice recognition.

    Computers and the likes should be easy to use. Hand gestures and voice commands is the most intuitive way to communicate as seen between people. With the support from the hardware and operating system, application programmers will be happy to "re-invent" their software to take these advantages as well.

    So, the next iMac may come with the main LCD incorporating the touch capability and a "touch keyboard" much like the iPhone and as well. Using the hand to control the main LCD UI element is productive and cool. Using the "touch keyboard" (with mouse like feature ) can help to improve the day to day usage model.

    Why there is an acquisition of a CPU company recently? Maybe because, there is a UIPU under way. This should greatly reduce the burden on the main CPU from the desktop to notebook to 3rd generation iPhone.
  • waffle911
    deal-breaking problem numero uno:
    7" touch-screens are expensive. Really expensive. Making them thin enough for such a device ensures this. For its intended uses, it might even have to be a sunlight readable transflective panel, adding bulk and price. Figure at least $600-700 for the screen alone, $400 if they're cut a good supply deal. If the device were to be something along the lines of, say, 2" thick (highly unlikely), then the display technology would cost about $200-300.

    Second, if an 8 hour battery life were really available for a device of this size at any reasonable price, the Eee PC would have done it already.

    Third, the monitor-camera concept is unrealistic any time soon. They have barely begun to look into the technology; they only patented the idea.

    Fourth, digital content creation would be a no-go. Anything with enough power to slice and dice video frames and create a usable website is going to be bulkier and have a larger screen.

    Fifth, a virtual keyboard is hardly any way to be productive. Without tactile feedback and the ability to accurately feel out key positions, there's little that a touch-typing industry professional could accomplish in any efficient amount of time that couldn't be done more quickly and conveniently on a regular laptop.

    In short, today's technology is close, but it isn't quite there yet. And even once it is viable, it will still be outrageously expensive for a while after.
  • rcwp116
    I just have this dumb idea (I guess)... Would it possible to have a gadget like a spectacle, when you are looking at your PC/Notebook device it will show the monitor screen, and if you are looking away from your device.. it will switch to normal spectacles..

    In this way, you won't have to worry about what size of monitor screen to choose.. and you will have a more private space without nosey people wondering what you are typing..

    Anyways.. just my 2 cents..
  • waffle911
    rcwp116I just have this dumb idea (I guess)... Would it possible to have a gadget like a spectacle, when you are looking at your PC/Notebook device it will show the monitor screen, and if you are looking away from your device.. it will switch to normal spectacles.. In this way, you won't have to worry about what size of monitor screen to choose.. and you will have a more private space without nosey people wondering what you are typing.. Anyways.. just my 2 cents..
    Not dumb; it could theoretically work. Think DLP but with a color laser-like LED array as opposed to a spinning color wheel, and many cleverly positioned micro-mirrors and ceramic optic lenses. Then, a sensor looks for key-coded position tags on the glasses to calculate projection direction, orientation, and focal distance, as well as to determine when the user is looking away so as to shut off the monitor when not in use.

    The likely problems would be complexity, response time, projected image resolution/clarity, color range/accuracy, overall fragility, bulk (think the size of, say, two decks of playing cards stacked when the technology has matured, as the unit would not likely be able to be manufactured flat), cost, and energy efficiency, all of which are reasons DLP TV's are on the way out.
  • gmeader
    Similar Product for $299: Touch Book
    The specifications

    * 9.4" x 7" x 1.4" for 2 lbs (with keyboard)
    * ARM Texas Instruments OMAP3 chip
    * 1024x600 8.9'' screen
    * Storage: 8GB micro SD card
    * Wifi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth
    * 3-dimensional accelerometer
    * Speakers, micro and headphone
    * 6 USB 2.0 (3 internal, 2 external, 1 mini)
    * 10h to 15 hours of battery life
    And it's all opensource, hardware and software.