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
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.