Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why an Apple Tablet is Bad News

With all of the tech pundits and blogs covering the rumored Apple Tablet, I can help myself but join in on the conversation.

I) My Background

Full disclosure, I spent my entire high school career wishing I had a Tablet PC. Now that I am in college, I am on my 2nd Tablet PC and am loving it. My program, The Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville requires all incoming students to purchase a Tablet PC for use in the class room. As for my credentials: I publish a podcast about Tablet PC's (STUG); I presented a poster on students educating students about Tablet PC's at WIPTE (A Student Driven Initiative to Increasing the Effectiveness of Tablet Based Learning Programs); I am currently working on getting a paper published about use of an automated software tool, that I wrote, in the grading student work submitted from Tablet PCs; I will be working for the Engineering Fundamentals department for a 2nd semester this fall helping calculus students during class time with their Tablet PCs. That all being said should establish my credibility on this subject.

When it comes to Apple, they do not subscribe to the oft quoted motto of Google, "do no evil." Quite to the contrary, Apple tends to be closed, restrictive, secretive, and overbearing. I'll leave that argument and discussion for another time. That said, I grew up using a Mac, but switched to PCs in middle school. I purchased an iPhone last summer and have been overall pleased with the experience, but I still see myself enjoying an Android phone more once the platform has matured a little more. I even have developed simple iPhone apps for my employer, so my experience using a Mac has been renewed recently.

II) The Apple Tablet

Now that all of the prefacing is out of the way, lets focus on the possibility of an Apple Tablet taking an optimistic approach:

The Form Factor

What will an Apple Tablet look like? Most people are guessing it will look like an over sized iPod Touch. This makes sense. It would not be hard to imagine the cross breeding between an iPod Touch and a MacBook Air producing a Tablet like product. My guess would be a 10 inch screen. This product will obviously be very thin, support multi-touch gestures, and focus heavily on internet and multi media. It may have some type of 3G support, but that isn't something I'll focus on. It will almost definitely have some sort of solid state drive for storage. It will likely boast amazing battery life, but actual performance, similar to the iPhone, will depend on how you use it.

The Operating System

While the actual implementation of the operating system is guaranteed to be a surprise, there are a few things that can be conjectured about. It will definitely be a variant on OS X similar to the approach that the iPhone has taken. It will likely have an interface that takes the best parts of the dock and springboard and blends them together. It may support existing iPhone applications, but with a change in form factor / screen resolution this is difficult to say. There will likely be no physical keyboard and will rely entirely on a on screen keyboard similar, but larger than the iPhone's. There probably will be some type of market place for distributing Apps, but this is also hard to guess about. The Mac is a relatively open platform while the iPhone is locked down very heavily. The Tablet may fall at one extreme or the other, but my guess is that it will be somewhere in the middle having a locked down distribution and media system but will still allow you to run existing Mac applications that support the platform.

What will it be used for?

There will be a major focus placed on multi media and video. Some people are predicting it will be a high definition media player for video. Other people have outlined a possible system where music booklets are included as part of albums for easy browsing. Even more optimistic people have guessed that it will be a color e-book reader. No matter what the Apple Tablet turns out to be, it will likely make major strides to revolutionize the industries it touches. The typical person using an Apple Tablet will still be an Apple early adopter. The users will be in air planes, on couches in living rooms, and college students distracting themselves from their studies. Business uses don't seem promising until the reality distortion field reaches the intensity similar to that of the iPhone, which is about 1 to 2 years.

III) Why this is all terrible news!

It is hard to decide where to even start. I'll focus first on the coverage and comparison to the existing Tablet PC market. Most people covering this story, specifically Leo Laporte, have written off the Microsoft Tablet PC platform entirely. Most reporters still hold to the idea of the Tablet PC that ran Windows XP, was slow, and had sub-par hardware. This is not the modern day Tablet PC. The slate Tablet form factor has all but vanished and has been replaced with convertible Tablets.

When it comes to the Microsoft Tablet operating system, it is Windows! Now the people on MacBreak Weekly laughed at the idea of using Windows on a Tablet saying they had to touch small buttons with a plastic pen. They were comparing the experience to that of an iPhone. A Tablet is a full computer, the iPhone is a phone, granted a feature ritch phone, but it would be hard to have that as your only device.

When it comes to Tablet PCs the rule of thumb is if you don't have a Wacom digitizer you wasted your money. The same people that complain about using a digital pen on a Tablet PC will profess the quality of a Wacom Tablet for use with PhotoShop. With a Wacom pen, a Tablet PC becomes a piece of paper that comes to life. Its accuracy and reliability can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it isn't hard to find a good experience. For students, they need only look to OneNote to find the killer app for Tablet PCs. This note taking software enables searching of had written, typed, and scanned notes, revolutionary for students who are accustomed to carrying multiple notebooks.

How does this all relate to the Apple Tablet? How does a modern Tablet PC relate to the Apple Tablet? It is simple, they don't relate at all! The problem is everyone makes the comparison, which is only logical. That said, I dare someone to use an Apple Tablet as their only device and take pages and pages of classroom notes on it. I dare someone to have their primary computer not have a physical keyboard. I'm typing this blog post on my Tablet PC, using its build in, physical, keyboard! I understand these products are targeting different markets. Windows 7 has revolutionary Tablet PC by making the integration transparent with the operating system.

Students who have seen the light are hard to convince to go back to pen and paper. However, I have seen the other side of this problem as well. I know how hard it is to convince someone that a Tablet PC isn't a novelty. I know how hard it is to convince a student to go paperless. However, I will resign the fact that the Tablet PC is a niche product. Most people won't need the added features. I'll admit that being on co-op I have rarely used my Tablet PC in Tablet mode. However, when I go back to class it will be in Tablet mode most of the day as I take notes and do homework. The niche for the Tablet PC is education, and moving forward the paperless classroom will adopt Tablet PCs more and more.

Lastly, and selfishly, it will be hard to convince students entering Speed School that the Apple Tablet isn't really a Tablet PC and is just a toy. In the end the Apple Tablet will be a toy. It will be hard to do work on a slate Tablet. It was hard to do work on slate Tablets when they were common and running Windows, and they will be hard to do work on, but maybe fun to play multi touch games on, when they are running OS X.

Will I buy an Apple Tablet? Probably not. Will it change the industry? You bet! Will it change the industry for the better? My bet is no.

When Apple actually announces a product, we will have a better idea of its impact on the market.

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