The Problem with Tablets

There are lots of rumors swirling about an Apple Tablet. It’s to Apple’s credit that people get excited about (and start reviewing) a device they’ve never seen. Maybe Apple is making one, maybe not. I have no idea. But the rumors are swirling more quickly than usual, gaining details as they go. They feel pretty credible.

Still, there’s one problem with all these rumors.

Tablets are awkward. If you want to watch a movie on it, how do you prop it up? How do you hear it? If you want to send email, are you doing that on a flat surface? You wouldn’t hold it up in the air and type with your thumbs. It’s too wide and heavy, and easily droppable. If you want to listen to music on it in your car or at the gym, you can’t easily take it on the go because it’s too big to fit in your pocket or sit in your console or on the dashboard. You’d want to put it into a backpack or briefcase, at which point it’s just another laptop. (To be clear, I’m not saying the previous things won’t be possible on the device, but that they can’t be comfortable or ideal without forethought on the part of the device’s designers.)

So now we know the problem. What’s the solution? Let’s think about what we know about Apple.

First off, we know Apple isn’t the kind of company to leave the aforementioned problems to the consumer. They’ll solve the problem for you before they sell you the product, and oftentimes include the solution within the device. (Or sometimes sell extra accessories.)

Secondly, Apple never makes a device just to get something into a particular form factor or “make a play for a niche.” When they create, they have particular needs and particular uses in mind. If it’s not widely useful, they won’t make it. They don’t want to waste money and time making a device no one wants and no one can take pleasure in using. They’re far more likely to make a device that does one or two things extremely well at the expense of other functionality than they are to make a device that does a hundred or a thousand things in a mediocre, awkward way. In fact, I would say that particular tendency is at the absolute core of Apple’s mentality.

So the big question in my mind is this: what would Apple think people could enjoy doing with a 10-inch touch screen tablet? It’s not a laptop. It’s not an iPod or iPhone. It’s something else. Why does it need to exist?

I have a wild guess. Ready?

My guess is that it’ll compete with the Kindle and launch with an iTunes Book Store. You’ll be able to put all your textbooks for school on it, all your novels, periodicals, blogs, the Bible, comic books, whatever. Then, via a slick UI, they enable the user to highlight certain passages and take notes (audio, video, or text). You’ll be able to search all your books and notes via built-in Spotlight technology. Suddenly it’s got the souped-up power of a computer with the easy utility of a well-loved paperback. They could also augment it socially by making it an always-online device which you can use to collaborate with friends and have discussions about anything you’re reading.

Perhaps in the future, publishers of original text would be able to submit and sell their writing in the iTunes Store in the same way iPhone application developers do today. Suddenly bloggers and other writers can make a buck on their craft without having to cling to a huge parent organization. If you’re a good writer, you can do that for a living and you’ve got a gigantic potential audience waiting to pay a few cents here and there for your creations.

In a nutshell, the device will be “Reading Redux.” It has uses in business, education, and in the home. We all read all day. We’re all stuck in paper. That’s gotta change.

Reading Redux is compelling. A device with current functionality shoehorned into a different form factor is not compelling to you and me, and it isn’t compelling to Apple either. That’s not what we’ll see.

6 Comments

  1. Posted August 11, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Could be. But I also think people want to do something else on the couch — they want to surf the web. Perhaps even more than read. I want to do that, but I don’t want to have an entire laptop running on my lap. And I’d rather not be sitting at a computer when I’m just reading a blog.

    But if it’s going to be a reading tool, it shouldn’t have a backlit screen. And right now that means no color (if it’s eink). But maybe Apple will fix that. I doubt it.

    I know what I want to do — I want to read books, blogs, and surf the web easily from my recliner. Basically I want the large kindle with color, a touchscreen, and a mac-like interface.

    I’m still guessing it will just be a large iPhone though. A better interface geared towards a larger screen, but it will be backlit and be more full-featured than the iPhone, but not as full-featured as OS X.

    The need and market will be there, just like it was for the iPod and iPhone. It’ll be neat to see how Apple creates it.

  2. Posted August 11, 2009 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely agree it’ll have Mobile Safari on it. It would be ridiculous if it didn’t.

    What I’m getting at is that reading on the web is a non-optimal experience. Google AdWords and other junk constantly interrupt the content, the content layout and presentation is inconsistent between sites and sources, Google Reader’s font is too small for a decent “lean back” experience. These are some of the reasons Readability exists.

    If Apple were to streamline the reading experience by allowing you to subscribe to text in iTunes like you subscribe to podcasts and read that text in a highly-consistent, distraction-free, bookmarkable, searchable, beautiful interface with notes and useful social features, that’s better than the web. It’s even better than Google Reader. I think if it was done properly it would be better than any web app, though it would probably sync with the cloud in some way. I think the success or failure of this part of my assertion depends heavily on the minute details of the application.

    The problem with the device being mainly (or only!) a big touch-screen web browser is that people won’t shell out $300 or $800 just to read text on the web if they already have a laptop with Wifi. Laptops may not be the perfect solution while laying on the couch, but the laptop you already have is better than an several-hundred-dollar solution if you’re just going to read the same text. I don’t have that kind of expendable income. Few do. For this product to be truly appealing, it would have to be a portal to text that isn’t currently available via RSS (novels, newspapers, etc.) and a portal to the environment in which you would prefer to interact with that text.

    Regarding reading with backlighting, I read about 80% of the gigantic novel Anathem on my iPhone and really liked it. I don’t know if others would, though. A bigger screen would be a huge step in the right direction for the masses. I think the backlight issue is much less significant than the screen size issue.

  3. Posted August 12, 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    As an academic, I am hoping for a tablet with stylus that allows me to mark up PDFs. Most of what I read are articles in PDF format – more important for me than books, even. (I’m not likely to pay a second time to have a wireless version of a book that I also own in paper. And I’m not ready to transfer to paper-free.) I want to be able to mark them up with notes, store the original PDF and each generation of notes separately. And, this is the big kicker, I ask all my students to send me their papers in PDFs now, and typed comments are awkward while printing papers to pen-write comments is annoying and bulky.

    So I’m hoping for a tablet that will let me
    1. comment on student papers (PDFs) and return them electronically
    2. make notes on journal articles (PDFs) and store my notes in a searchable format.
    3. make notes on absolutely any format and store those notes.

    That’s what I would pay a lot of money for. Oh yes, and complete web browsing had better be free. (I’m looking at YOU, Kindle.)

  4. Posted August 13, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I agree that tablet macs are a trouble spot for a wide market however I disagree with your thought about where Apple might enter this market.

    The iPhone is already a competitor for Kindle. Especially now that Barnes and Noble is offering a free ebook app. No, I think that the final first draft will be more like Axiotron’s Modbook, at least I’m hoping as much.

    If I’m not mistaken, Apple’s biggest consumer base next to college students is designers, and if they choose to target this group more directly with something along those lines I think they’ll have a better chance to make a successful tablet.

    I know that my dream machine is a tablet based portable art tool, and as long as my funds are there and the specs are right, it’ll be my next machine.

  5. Posted August 13, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Interesting take, Joe. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t possible for artists to use an Apple tablet in innovative ways, but in my opinion, Apple won’t focus primarily on that market because not enough people are in it. It’s too niche. Why not build a device for aircraft engineers or professional sous chefs? That’s not how Apple rolls.

  6. Posted August 13, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Agreed that they probably wouldn’t focus on that group primarily, but that whatever they come up with should take that group into account.

    I shouldn’t have limited my appeal only for designers. I’m thinking creatives as a whole, musicians, artists, graphic designers, engineers, architects, (maybe even chefs, plant managers, and business professionals too) etc… could all get a range of uses out of a more powerful tablet device.

    Especially if it came with a slot for your iPhone.

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