The plot thickens: Even renowned publications like the Financial Times are now saying that Apple will soon launch a tablet computing device, sort of a large-scale iPod Touch.
If true, that would be a pretty bold move. The history of tablet computing — flat devices that use a touch screen or pen for interaction — is a long sequence of failures and disappointments. Microsoft had at least three shots at this market, starting in 1993. Windows XP Tablet PC edition in 2002 was a flop, and the entertainment-focused Ultra-mobile PC, released in 2006, didn’t fare much better. Now tablet-oriented features can be found in every copy of Windows Vista, but very few PC models use them. Many other vendors tried their luck with tablet form factors, but the only moderate success were probably the PDA devices of the late 90s.
So what does Apple need to do differently in order to be successful in this market?
I’m actually a fan of the tablet form factor. I experimented with the first “Windows for Pen Computing PCs” back in 1993 (which were really, really bad) and still own four different Tablet-PC and UMPC devices plus various PDAs and smartphones. From my experience, Apple needs to avoid the usual pitfalls and do the following:
1. Make sure it’s really mobile.
Tablet devices are supposed to be extremely mobile. But that’s pretty pointless if their battery life makes you carry around a power brick and various accessories anyway. My worst device in that respect was a UMPC built by the now defunct OQO. Its battery lasted less than two hours, and the power brick was bigger than the computer itself. So Apple needs to make sure that battery life is adequate and that the product doesn’t need any accessories (such as easily lost digital pens or external keyboards) to work — as in: Really work for the things people want to do with it, not just for a quick demo.
2. Do one or a few things really well.
The most successful tablet device in history, the Palm PDA, had a very clear focus: It was a digital replacement for your appointment book, not more and not less. Microsoft’s tablet PC on the other hand suffered from ambition overload. It tried to be a full-blown PC, but also a digital notepad, a highly portable information capture device for professionals, and oh yeah, also a great entertainment gadget. Unfortunately, it did none of these things particularly well. So Apple needs to decide what its tablet device should be for and provide a great user experience for that purpose. It looks like it will have a clear entertainment focus, which is probably a good idea.
3. Have a truly simple UI, don’t try to solve the hard problems.
Most tablet devices contained some kind of handwriting recognition. This seems to make sense for a tablet form form factor, but the sad truth is that computers are still pretty bad at reading handwritten text. A success rate of 95% (which is what most vendors claim) sounds good, but is almost unusable in practice. Most tablet devices have relatively slow CPUs and are therefore not able to get much better results. That’s why Apple should concentrate on an extremely simple touch UI without fancy input methods. But judging from the iPhone, Apple already knows that.
4. Make really, really good hardware.
Tablets need to be light, and that’s why many vendors compromise on hardware stability. Most of my tablet devices have one or several mechanical defects, since highly mobile use tends to be strenuous for hardware and the flimsy build quality of many of these devices is simply not good enough. An Apple tablet device at the rumored price of around $800 needs to be much more robust than the iPhone. People will expect these things to last for several years, not just until the next model comes out.
Apple already has the other necessary ingredients for a success: It knows how to generate that “wow” factor that is necessary to make people consider a new product category. It has retail shops that will provide a hands-on experience for consumers — something that the Windows-based Tablet PC market always lacked. And it has the developer ecosystem and licensing agreements to provide interesting content for the new device.
Now the only question is if and when Apple will come out with such a new device. If somebody can crack the code in tablet computing, it’s clearly Apple.