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