Will no one slate Apple’s iSlate?

First off, let's just remind ourselves who came up with this idea

Amid the avalanche of news articles and blogs gushing over the anticipated launch of an Apple tablet computer next week -- possibly called the iSlate or iPad, or neither -- it is perhaps worth taking stock of the situation and asking whether all the hype is really justified.

The idea of a tablet or slate PC is not new. In fact, they've been around for about ten years, and it's a format that came to the mainstream thanks to a product announcement by Microsoft in 2001, when the Redmond-based firm launched a pen-enabled computer running a licensed copy of the "Windows XP Tablet PC Edition".

It was essentially a laptop-style device that featured a touchscreen with handwriting recognition, to make it easier to jot down notes, rush off a quick sketch, or whatever. Some manufacturers opted to stay with the laptop's physical keyboard, spawning a category known as "booklets", while others dropped the keyboard in favour of just a touchscreen in a device resembling a slate.

So, first off, let's just remind ourselves who brought this concept to the mainstream -- Microsoft -- before we wonder whether Apple's version will "change the world" as some commentators are suggesting.

Second, it's worth noting that, so far, such tablets have found only a limited audience. A recent Morgan Stanley report suggested that two million tablet PCs were shipped last year, compared to 34 million netbooks and 131 million notebooks.

So why hasn't the tablet PC already overtaken more conventional laptops, notebooks or, indeed, the latest netbooks? Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list of disadvantages. These include the higher cost, snail-like speed of handwriting recognition compared to a keyboard, screen and hinge damage risk, less familiar ergonomics and, in most cases, a relative lack of power.

So if Apple launches a tablet-style Mac next week, will it change any of this?

There are plenty who are happy to help Apple out with a bit of hype. The Guardian ran a front-page article in its G2 section, asking: "Can Apple change the world again?"

In that article, the author, Charles Arthur, makes some excellent points, but also says: "Now, however, armed with a decent-sized screen, effortless multi-touch, sleek good looks and all those millions of apps, perhaps Apple's tablet will prove the holy grail of being the consumer favourite for watching TV and movies, reading e-books, surfing the web and playing games."

Compared to many articles, this was understated, yet it still wonders whether the iSlate will change the portable TV, e-reader, web surfing and games device markets.

Meanwhile, the technology news site Silicon.com asked: "Is Apple preparing a tablet to kill all laptops?"

Kill all laptops? However great the new iSlate, it seems inconceivable that it will replace laptops. Typing on a keyboard is still the optimal way of adding text to an email, document or even Tweet. Not only are touchscreens fragile, but their on-screen keyboards can get greasy and prove less fast and accurate than the keyboards most people are familiar with.

There's surely going to be a question over battery life. While many are saying the iSlate will revolutionise both the e-reader (digital book) and publishing industries, I'm yet to be convinced.

Charles Arthur enthuses, "The Apple tablet's reading experience is expected to be much enhanced from the current crop of handheld e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, which launched in November 2007 and costs about £300. With its monochrome screen, plasticky white buttons and limited web browsing capabilities, you'd never mistake the Kindle for an Apple product."

But there's a reason that today's e-readers tend to opt for a monochrome screen. A digital book or e-reader is designed to mimic a book. That means it needs to be both easy on the eye and have a rather long battery life: if you can read a book for days without having to think about batteries, you certainly wouldn't want to swap that experience for one in which you must recharge a battery every few hours.

Yet even the iPhone, with a far smaller screen than any predictions for the iSlate, suffers complaints about having a limited battery life under typical usage patterns.

So it's unlikely to compete head-on with dedicated e-readers, at least if it has a bright, colour screen. And it won't kill off laptops because most people still want a keyboard, and a folding keyboard happens to protect the screen from knocks and scratches, too.

Meanwhile, in a story entitled "Apple may change the world . . . again", Fast Company says: "We're in for a massive change in the world of computing as we know it." The author, Gadi Amit, suggests that, "Since Apple has rarely (or actually . . . never?) failed with market introduction of a strategic device, I will go out on a limb and say that this might change the software industry as well."

Amit is clearly forgetting about the Apple TV set-top box, and the Apple Cube, which, as Arthur points out, was a pet project of the Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, that sank without trace.

But Amit says the iSlate will revolutionise the software market, just to add to the claims that it will revolutionise the publishing industry, reinvigorate portable gaming, kill the laptop market and shake up the e-reader market to boot.

Is there nothing this device is not predicted to revolutionise? Perhaps that will be its biggest challenge: trying to be all things to everyone. Is it an e-reader, a portable gaming device, a big iPhone, a form-changing laptop, or none of the above?

Whatever it turns out to be, I'm bored by the ridiculous hype already. Which is not to say that it won't still sell by the truckload, to those who would shoot themselves in the iFoot if Steve Jobs got up on stage to explain in charismatic fashion why they should.

Jason Stamper is the technology correspondent of the New Statesman and editor of Computer Business Review

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.