Why a Tablet?

The Apple faithful are all a-twitter about the possibility of Apple introducing a tablet computer at the end of this month.

Of course, this being Apple, nay-sayers abound. They seem to come from two different directions.

  1. Since tablet computers have been around forever and have been resounding market failures, why should this one be different?

    (Disclaimer: I invested in a company that made software for Tablet PCs in the late 1990s. It was a technological triumph but, as alluded to above, it was a resounding market failure.)

  2. Apple already has a tablet computer—it’s called an iPhone/iPod touch—and it already has a small portable full-featured computer—it’s called a MacBook. So where is there room for a “middle product” without cannibalizing existing sales?
  3.  

    Lots of good points being made in those links. But I can answer Joe Wilcox’s challenge: “What would you use an Apple tablet, or any other, for…that you can’t do on an iPhone or laptop?”

    For me, it’s easy: Take notes in meetings.

    Dilbertian arguments about meeting productivity aside, I live in meetings… sometimes eight or ten in a day. Sometimes one-on-one, sometimes around a table with a dozen other people. But there are two things I can’t do in those meetings:

  1. Unfold a laptop, no matter how small or sexy. Because once you have a laptop on the table, you have literally erected a wall between you and whoever you’re meeting with.
  2. Hold up my iPhone and focus on typing in that teeny-tiny screen. (Holding the iPhone down in my lap and not-so-discreetly reading email is a faux pas, but happens anyhow. But scrolling and reading doesn’t take the same level of focus as typing.)
  3.  

    So in this year 2010, when we’re supposed to be orbiting Jupiter, I’m still taking notes with a pen in a Moleskine notebook. Then I ignore them.

    What I want to be able to do is take notes on an electronic device that automatically syncs them with something in the cloud (PBworks, or a Google doc, or something). Then when I get back to my desk, I can edit those notes, forward them to co-workers, add tasks to a timeline, or generally do anything productive with them without trying to read my own handwriting and re-type the contents. And I want to do it with Apple’s signature UX and polished UI.

    Oddly enough, I used to use a device that gave a vision of how this could be possible… and Apple manufactured it in 1993. It was the Newton.

    newton

    I won’t go into my impassioned defense of the Newton here—once your product has been skewered by Doonesbury, it’s pretty much all over. And, really, the product didn’t hit its stride until the release of the Newton 2100, only months before Steve Jobs returned to Apple and killed the project because of its guilt-by-association with John Sculley. (The 2100 had an 8x faster CPU, which finally let the handwriting-recognition algorithms keep up.) But I could do something with my Newton 2100 that I couldn’t do with a whole series of Graffiti-based Palm PDAs, or a Fujitsu Stylistic tablet, or my iPhone: I could take notes in meetings.

    Real-time, as fast as I could write, in outlines that I could rearrange and organize and search while still in the meeting. Because Internet connectivity was still primitive, and wireless basically nonexistent, I had to dock the Newton with my desktop and transfer the notes over a cable… but the core note-taking functionality was there. Transmitting the bits differently would have been a trivial improvement, had the product survived.

    And because the Newton stayed horizontal on the tabletop or tilted in my left hand, I could maintain easy eye contact with other people in the room, glancing down at the screen precisely as I do with my Moleskine notebook… a completely different interaction than occasionally peering at them over the lid of a laptop computer.

    Apple still doesn’t make anything that can do this. Neither does anyone else.

    And I fear that, after January 26th, Apple still won’t make anything that can do this. Because all of the sexy applications—watching movies, and editing photos, and reading graphically-rich ebooks—can be done with what Steve Jobs calls “the best pointing device in the world… our fingers.”

    You can’t take notes that way. Even with some sort of exotic haptic feedback, typing on a tablet means focusing on the tabletop, not whoever you’re meeting with. And fingerpainting lettershape is technically impressive, but slow, slow, slow… requiring you to move the whole hand, not just twitch the point of a pen. And although I know someone who can type 80 words per minute on his Twiddler handheld input device, I suspect the very steep learning curve will keep it out of the mainstream (therefore, out of Apple’s product line).

    Rapid eyes-up input requires a stylus… either with sophisticated handwriting recognition or with something like Graffiti. And with all the exotic possibilities being hyped for the Apple tablet, no one is mentioning a stylus.

    Because Steve Jobs hates the stylus, because it reminds him of the Newton.

    Which means we still won’t be able to exploit what should the the killer app of a thin, powerful, touch-screen device, nearly two decades after the Newton was released.

    Which is a damned shame.