As the new year rolls in, the talk of the tech world is Apple's allegedly upcoming tablet computer. The New York Times has even dubbed 2010 as "the year of the tablet."
Sites and publications that cover Apple and the tech industry are abuzz with the usual frenetic levels of speculation that always precede the secretive company's future product releases. Nobody really knows anything, but the guesses have taken on a life of their own, creating a froth of hype that Apple itself probably couldn't achieve if was being forthcoming.
The consensus of speculation seems to be that the tablet will be called the iSlate, it will be a cross between an iPhone and a laptop, it will have a nine- or 10-inch high-resolution color screen, it will have Wi-Fi and cell network access to the Internet, it will cost somewhere between several hundred dollars and $1,000, and it will be announced later this month and be available in the spring. Or maybe not. Everybody's guessing.
There's a lot of chatter about the tablet in media-industry circles, as well. The idea of a portable device for reading newspapers and magazines has been kicking around for nearly two decades, dating back to concepts promulgated by erstwhile Knight Ridder new media/tablet guru Roger Fidler (who's still chasing his dream). In all those years, the mythical tablet has been a sort of holy grail for publishers, the electronic version of papyrus and newsprint. That dream has been renewed lately by the ability to crudely publish newspapers and magazines on Amazon's Kindle, as well as by a much-hyped demo of an electronic version of Sports Illustrated that frankly doesn't advance much beyond what Fidler and others among us were demo-ing in the early '90s. (Can we get over the electronic page-turning metaphor, replete with sound effects? Please?)
And now, or very soon, comes Apple's tablet. Publishers look at it and see that text reader they've always dreamed of. TV and movie execs look at it and see a portable video device. Gamers and software developers see it as a new kind of lightweight computer.
But I believe all of these views are way too limited. With a nod toward the parable of the five blind men evaluating an elephant, it's important not to look at the forthcoming tablet through the prism of individual media types. Most of those speculating about Apple's tablet aren't thinking big enough. They're concentrating on narrow possibilities—it could be a book reader! It could play movies!—without seeing the much bigger picture of what Apple may be on the verge of creating. To its users, it will be: All Of The Above. And that's huge.
Indeed, I believe the Apple tablet has the potential to strikingly transform large swaths of the media business, from newspapers to television to movies, pretty much all at once. Reading the tea leaves of all the rumors, and making guesses based on following the company closely for 25 years as a reporter, fan and (full disclosure: very small) shareholder, I think there's a significant chance that Apple may swing for the fences with its new device—and the services that surround it.
Apple's tablet has the potential to change the way we consume and pay for media—many different types of media—as substantially as the company revolutionized the computing business with the original Macintosh, the music business with the iPod and iTunes and telephony and handheld computing with the iPhone. Probably more so, in fact.
It's also important to think of the Apple tablet as more than just the device. It may be part of a larger technological/media system that will also include a greatly expanded iTunes store and perhaps even a greatly enhanced version of Apple's long-simmering AppleTV product.
With that in mind, let's speculate on how the tablet could impact different types of media:
- Newspapers: Roger Fidler's tablet finally comes to life, with all the attendant multimedia and interactivity possibilities. Big deal—the Web has done that for years. What the tablet will add is location-awareness, giving publishers and advertisers the ability to tune their messages to where the user is. This is the ultimate in personalized news. We've already seen glimpses of this on the iPhone, Android and other smartphones (which are surprisingly good as text-based newsreaders). Imagine the same thing with a big screen. There might even be a subscription model for the best, most unique content, since there are already signs that smartphone users will pay for the convenience of certain kinds of quality niche content or apps. (But hey, newspapers: No simply pasting print content on a tablet screen, OK? Take advantage of the medium.)
- Magazines: The flashy Sports Illustrated demo is frustrating because it's so superficial. A portable magazine reader is important only if it greatly exploits the ability for interactivity that will finally make magazines (if they're smart) tap into the vital special-interest communities that are their subscriber bases. I don't just want to watch video that goes with Sports Illustrated stories—I want to be able to instantly discuss those stories with other SI readers. Incidentally, the Apple tablet will make the magazine's industry's belated efforts to create its own magazine-reading device completely superfluous.
- Books: It's assumed by just about everybody that the Kindle is pretty much roadkill the moment that Apple's tablet hits the market. Instead of a single-function, black-and-white book reader, the iSlate would provide readers with full-color displays, access to an expanded iTunes store for book downloads—and the ability use the device for countless other functions. Sure, it will be more expensive than the Kindle (at first). But it will provide much more value. If you're going to carry a book reader, wouldn't you rather it be one that does tons of other things? (Especially if the reader can provide gorgeous color multimedia and interactivity—portable online book discussion groups?—at the same time.)
- Television: This is where things start to get really interesting. The tablet could finally bring the long-dreamed-of "TV everywhere" concept to life, with a portable device that provides a la carte access to all sorts of video content—from YouTube, TV networks, studios, etc. Apple already is reported to be in talks with broadcast networks to provide access to their content on the tablet on a subscription basis; extend that to cable networks, plus the existing iTunes and Hulu video-on-demand services, and users will be able to watch pretty much whatever they want whenever they want. But wait, there's more: That viewing wouldn't be limited to the small screen of the tablet. Combined with a much-expanded version of the TiVo-like AppleTV platform, the tablet could act as a controller and source for watching that same video on the big screen at home. You could switch seamlessly between large and small screens. And the business models for this—subscription, pay-per-view--could upend the advertising-based model for broadcast TV. The possibilities here are fascinating.
- Movies: Along the same lines, the tablet plus AppleTV could be a marvelous bridge between portable movie-viewing (on a much better screen than watching movies on an iPod or iPhone, which is surprisingly popular) and home viewing. Netflix and others are hurtling toward ubiquitous digital delivery of movies; Apple could beat them to it by providing the devices that are the missing link.
- Communications: The tablet will work on cellphone networks, but who wants to carry a phone that big? Wrong question. Telephony would be merely a sideshow on the tablet. More importantly, always-on access to communications via cell networks and Wi-Fi, plus a user-facing camera, could make the tablet a powerful video-communications tool: Skype in your hands or, to hearken back a few decades, the ultimate PicturePhone.
- Apps and Gaming: The secret weapon of the iPhone has been its tens of thousands of apps, which give the device countless additional uses—any iPhone user will gladly demonstrate for you the latest app that has made his or her life easier (or at least cooler). Here again, the iTunes store is the enabler, and it's reasonable—especially if the iSlate uses a variant of the iPhone operating system—to expect that the apps ecosystem will transfer to the new device, enhanced by the larger screen size and other enhanced features. The portable gaming possibilities alone are enormous. So are the possibilities for interesting and innovative social applications. (Video Twitter, anyone?)
That's quite a laundry list for a single device, but that's where Apple appears to be headed. Oh, and the tablet will be a computer, too. Why carry a laptop when the iSlate is lighter, has a full-sized virtual keyboard, maybe some sort of video-out capability and the ability to handle Word, Excel and PowerPoint files (plus whatever the apps bring to it)? I just wish they'd add a slide-in dock for an iPhone, so I could carry a single lightweight device.
The scenario I've laid out here is just as speculative as any of the other guessing out there about what Apple's up to. I'm certainly not alone: Daring Fireball's John Gruber makes a similarly sweeping prediction:
If you’re thinking The Tablet is just a big iPhone, or just Apple’s take on the e-reader, or just a media player, or just anything, I say you’re thinking too small—the equivalent of thinking that the iPhone was going to be just a click wheel iPod that made phone calls. I think The Tablet is nothing short of Apple’s reconception of personal computing.
These are grand expectations. Truth is, nobody really knows what Apple is up to except Steve Jobs and a handful of other insiders. And certainly a handful of naysayers are suggesting that nobody really wants to lug around a tablet computer, and thus it could be a Newton-like bust (although the Newton, in retrospect, seems remarkably prescient). Indeed, Apple, full of hubris and swagger after the enormous success of the iPod and iPhone, could well blow it with an overpriced, unfocused product.
But like Gruber, I'm betting on Apple to break ground, yet again, with its tablet, and in a big, big way. It could bring together so many threads of innovation that have been developing for the past few years. I truly believe that we could be on the verge of an important turning point for the way we get and use all sorts of media. I can't wait to see what Apple comes up with. It could change everything.