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.