Stop the Noiz

Apple's Tablet an End Run Beyond Netbooks

Frank Fox - 2009.11.20 - Tip Jar

In June 2008, I talked about convergence in The iPhone Redefines the Mobile Phone and Mobile Computer Markets - how mobile devices like the original Apple Newton, followed by the Palm, and now the iPhone are converging on the features of a desktop computer. New mobile devices won't just be a limited professional toy, but the real deal we carry in our pocket when we leave the desk.

Then, in February 2009, I blew up the myth that Apple has to make a netbook computer right away in Today's Netbook Market Is Too Small to Interest Apple. I gave Apple between one and two years before the market share for netbooks finally became significant enough to worry about.

OpenCLMost recently, I highlighted OpenCL and the fantastic technology that will bring the processing power of the GPU to the everyday software developers. People are already seeing 50% improvement in the speed of their software on exactly the same computer.

The last element I want to bring in is Apple's design choice. Apple designs its products to stand on their own without a lot of overlap. Apple even limits features in low-end models to create better product separation.

What Is Apple Planning?

Now let's pull all of these facts together: convergence, 1-2 years to design a lower cost netbook or portable device, the OpenCL bump on processing power, and Apple's targeted design.

Apple is certainly working on some kind of device. Apple is always working on a new device - no big secret here. They are a consumer electronics maker. The question is how will they make something that goes beyond anything anyone else has?

One simple question: Will it be a netbook or a tablet? I think that a tablet makes the most sense. Because it has no keyboard, it will not be seen as competing for consumers who want a laptop. Let all the other dumb PC makers undercut their own laptop sales by marketing netbooks.

But what will it do that will make you buy it? The iPhone pointed the way. It is the smartphone device that uses most of AT&T's network capacity. People clearly want a device for anywhere Internet connectivity - not just email or text messages, but full Internet browsing. I expect Apple and AT&T to remain exclusive partners for a couple more years. Who better for Apple to pick as its cellular partner?

The Technology

What is going to power the beast? Apple increased its stake in Imagination Technologies. This is the company that designs the PowerVR graphics hardware found in the iPhone. And guess what? IT's new SGX543MP chip "just happens" to support OpenCL. And don't forget that Apple bought PA Semi, a company know for low-power computer chips.

Grand Central DispatchThese two companies should be able to supply Apple with powerful, battery-friendly processors that Apple can exploit to the maximum using its Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL technologies. That's a powerhouse combination you won't see on a netbook from Dell or Acer. Netbooks are stuck with single-core 1.6 GHz Atom processors or their rough equivalents.

This may help to explain why Apple dropped support for the Atom processor. Why keep support for a product you aren't going to use? Sure, this angers those who made "Hackintoshes" out of their netbooks. The hobby crowd will have to sort that out for itself. It's not like Apple promised support and then changed its mind.

Leveraging the App Store

What other developments are going to make this device the "must have" gadget? It will make the iPhone App Store available to users. It will include the multitouch input controls, motion sensors, and onscreen keyboard from the iPhone. Some features will be tweaked to differentiate the products, just like the iPod touch (iTouch)has no camera but the iPhone does.

This means that if you want a gaming device like the iTouch, you got it. If you want a friendly ebook reader, like Amazon's Kindle, you got it. If you want to watch a movie or listen to some music like the iPod, you got it.

Developers won't have to go to the extra work of porting their apps over, and they get a new market to sell to overnight.

Along with the App Store is the rest of iTunes that has music, TV shows, and movies. That means you'll have plenty of content to fill up the device on the first day it is released.

But you can never have too much content to put on a portable device.

Rumors on the Web have been that Apple is going after the news, book, and print industries. Apple may be negotiating deals to offer newspapers through this device, and Kindle is already an app for the iPhone. Having reader capabilities makes sense, as does lining up special deals for more content.

That sounds nice, but who is going to spend $500 so they can read The New York Times on a tablet? Thankfully, Apple has plenty of other things to offer that will make its tablet more than a glorified electronic newspaper.

Tablet vs. iPhone

How will it be better than the iPhone? First it will have a larger screen. This means better for watching movies. Onscreen typing will have larger buttons. It could also have a cheap hard drive to give it lots more storage. An optional pen/stylus will create a fantastic drawing tablet with a WYSIWYG interface.

Will it have DVD or, even better, Blue-ray? Not a chance. Apple has the iTunes Store, which already allows people to buy or rent movies. If the tablet comes with a Mini DisplayPort, Apple may be willing to sacrifice Apple TV sales, or it is possible the two will be able to stream content back and forth.

The device will also need to have a look that sets it apart. The most important thing will be to have it as thin as possible. Something the same thickness as the iPhone (1/2") should be possible, maybe even the tapered look of the MacBook Air to give it thin edges. It will have round edges with no sharp corners, because a tablet is meant to be held.

Since it would be thin and need good battery life, it will have an integrated battery, like iPhones, iPods, and Mac notebooks. Sure, a few people complain about this, but it appears to be a working strategy for Apple.

A video camera with some kind of decent resolution will create a reason to have more storage. Nothing uses up hard drive space as quickly as video. Like the new iPod nano, it will have single-click upload directly to YouTube. Cameras of low resolution are cheap to add, and this may be one area that Apple limits to separate it from the iPhone.

Data in the Cloud

If Apple works to improve its MobileMe service, it will be able to provide a full featured cloud-computing platform. Apple already has email, contacts, and calendar plus iDisk for storage. If it adds a way to stream media from the iDisk or includes a decent office app that can take advantage of the touch screen interface, then Apple will have some killer apps.

There is no doubt that Apple has the resources to make any new device incredibly powerful. Apple already has tons of content and apps that are ready to go. It has its own chip design companies to give the device something unique, and failing that, Apple can fall back to either an ARM or Atom processor. With total control over Mac OS X, there are no limits on how to tie all the details together in a seamless package.

Follow the Leader

Without a doubt, Apple is in a strong position to create a new entry in the market that others will spend years trying to catch.

Let's see Android, Windows Mobile, or Palm webOS beat that! LEM

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