It’s time to talk about Macs and tablets. And the first thing we need to address in any conversation is, of course, the likelihood of this ever happening. Let’s face it, if the average human is required to maintain the fantasy that a Mac tablet is an imminent product, we’re talking Keith Moon quantities of hallucinogens and a pill the size of the mouse from the original iMac.
All I know is that I’ve been trying to picture such a beast as an Apple product and coming up blank. And folks, just to help my powers of creative visualization, I’ve uncapped a whole box of those ultra-stinky black markers here in the office and closed all the windows.
When you think ‘Mac tablet’, you most readily imagine something like Axiotron’s ModBook. And the ModBook works absolutely great for what it is: a niche product.
Artists go absolutely mad for it. The touchpad is sensitive enough to let them pull a full range of dynamic and realistic brush effects out of their drawing software, and it’s so much easier to draw than using a conventional setup.
Okay, so: it’s a big win for artists. But it’s of little interest to most people. See, you can’t peel a GUI off of a desktop and stick it back down on a tablet. Microsoft did that with Windows Tablet Edition. Menus, buttons and controllers for manipulating and resizing windows, even those buttons that seem big and plump to a mouse pointer become eensy-weensy when you’re trying to find them with a stylus. Cooking a few numbers in a spreadsheet and then emailing the results to your boss quickly reminds you of the last time you played the board game Operation and had to remove the funny bone without making your patient’s nose light up.
But let’s say that Apple has a bee in its bonnet to produce a tablet. Sure, they could do that… it’s just that it wouldn’t be a Mac. It would probably be the ultimate Apple product: a hybrid between the Mac, the iPhone, and the iPod.
The first item on the whiteboard: it has to be the most luxurious media player that Apple’s ever produced. What better way to show off all those iTunes Store movies, newly available in hi-def? Great movie-watching experience implies that you won’t necessarily hold it in your hand, so we’ll need a new, touch-based edition of Front Row, and the standard stick-of-gum remote.
Screen dreams Size? Good question. A tablet would have to be much larger than anybody would generally think is practical. It needs to be portable, but with enough screen to really differentiate it from the iPhone and iPod touch, and make you want to buy more HD content from iTunes. No bigger than a MacBook screen, surely. If you cut that in half, to about 5 x 7in, you’d probably have it just right. And built like a cross between an iPhone and a MacBook Air. iPod-style battery and hard drive, armed with a titanic cache to ensure that the drive spends most of its time spun down.
No optical drive to speak of, and no ports apart from a headphone jack and an enhanced dock connector. Apple has pushed ‘wireless’ hard enough to rub the lettering off the top, and will look to advances in Bluetooth for connectivity with things like keyboards and GPS.
It’ll also come with a 3G cellular chipset, though it’s dead unless you choose to sign up for a voice/data plan with an approved carrier and they send you a SIM. 3G would probably be a big limiting factor on this sort of device – I’m guessing that Apple wouldn’t release this sort of tablet until the 3G chipset is cheap and small enough that they can afford to essentially give it away with every unit.
It doesn’t replace your Mac but it works with your Mac, or your Windows machine. It has an enhanced syncing relationship with a desktop, which can optionally broadcast files and features to the device via a network.
Software will be a superset of the iPhone SDK. Rule One of the user-interface guidelines will be: ‘If the user can see an interface, you’re doing it wrong’. The Finder will be a cross between Cover Flow and the old Mac OS ‘sliding tiles’ puzzle.
Apple’s core app And Safari will be, hands-down, the most important app on the device. Sure, there’d be third-party software that works whether or not you have a network connection. But with the iPhone, Apple demonstrated that it’s eager to wire up Safari with proprietary features that are of interest only to web developers specifically targeting this one browser on this one device. A tablet would take this to the next level, allowing a user to swipe a finger to wake the device and discover a moment later that their tasks manager – projected into the device via a remote server – is more stable than it was an hour ago and has a bunch of brand-new features, besides.
The more I think about an Apple tablet the more I think that it’s an opportunity for the company to produce the most abstract computer ever made. A machine that isn’t a destination in and of itself, but a constantly-moving 5 x 7in viewport that you can swing around and aim at any part of your digital existence. Aim it at your iMac and you have access to all of your documents without any need for syncing. Aim it at your Apple TV and you can watch the rest of the movie you rented last night. It has local storage and local software and local computing power, but that’s old-hat – the biggest hassles about my portable devices is combating the ongoing problem of keeping the device and the data I need somewhere in the same room… and ultimately, finding the right cable.
Overall, an Apple tablet will succeed most masterfully if it turns out that nothing I’ve said in this column comes to pass. Steve Jobs himself quoted Henry Ford recently: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked me for a faster horse.”
Tablets have come and gone; if the company’s lucky, they go quietly before investment analysts get mad enough to drive the stock price down. We’ve seen plenty of faster horses. What we need is a Newton for the 21st century.