Fantasy features of an Apple tablet

Between smartphones and laptops lies a no-man's land for gadgets. If Apple does venture there, here's what it should pack.

Apple seems almost ready to bridge the gap between the iPhone and the MacBook with a new type of mobile computer. What will it look like? Tom Krazit/CNET News

Apple is rumored to be working on something bigger than an iPod Touch, but smaller than a MacBook. Past patent applications filed by the company and whispers from contract manufacturers point to a midsize gadget with a screen of 7 to 8 inches in the works, perhaps scheduled to debut early next year. It's been variously described as a tablet-like device, a "media pad," and an iPod Touch on steroids.

But the middle ground between handheld device and traditional laptop has historically been a hard sell to mainstream consumers. Apple has some experience reinventing what were thought to be staid or failed product categories, and is known for its stringent product review process, so if anyone has potential to make something compelling for this "tweener" category , it's the company to do so.

For Apple, this could be its answer to the Netbook craze --20 million of those scaled-down PCs will be shipped to retailers this year, doubling last year's output. Apple has been fairly clear in its distaste for them, using descriptors like " junky ," and the average selling price of around $400 wouldn't allow Apple to keep its margins as high as it's used to.

But there is clearly a market, particularly given the current state of the economy, for a device in that middle range between a smartphone and a laptop. Interim CEO Tim Cook recently admitted that Apple has "some interesting ideas in this space."

Let's say it does make one. What exactly should a tablet from Apple do and what kind of features does it need to sport to avoid the pitfalls of every other failed tablet PC, ultramobile PC, and mobile Internet device now gathering dust in the basements and desk drawers of early adopters?

Some suggestions:

Reinvent the category: First, Apple has to solve the major problem that has plagued all tablet-like devices until now: lack of interest from consumers, and a clear purpose for the device, which is no small feat. "This must have a very different spin on the tablet phenomena," said Michael Gartenberg, vice president of analysis at Interpret. "What can (a tablet) do that neither (a phone or laptop) can do that causes a consumer to carry one more thing? Consumers maximum want to carry two, maybe three things."

The solution will be to make it as easy to use as possible, in a way no company has yet, and with features, such as those listed below.

Be thin and light: A device thinner and lighter than the 3-pound MacBook Air and slightly heftier than the 1.1-pound Kindle DX would make people more apt to carry it around. Clunky, heavy ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) like the OQO , for example, were portable in theory, but weren't practical for more than a niche business audience. If people don't want to carry it around, they may as well stick with a smartphone and a laptop. This is what happened to tablet PCs, which currently occupy approximately 1 percent of the overall PC market, according to IDC. UMPCs' market share is essentially zero.

Have customized software: No-man's-land devices like tablet PCs and UMPCs/MIDs failed partly because their operating system, Windows XP, wasn't optimized for those devices. Apple has an advantage there with the iPhone OS. It could be tweaked for a midsize device between the iPhone and MacBook.

"Going with the iPhone OS would likely bring advantages in terms of simplicity, battery life, form factor, cost, and stability," noted Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at The NPD Group. "Mac OS, on the other hand, would provide a more robust Web surfing experience by enabling Adobe Flash."

What's key is to keep the best parts of the iPhone and the best parts of the Mac desktop OS, like the iPhone's version of the Safari browser, and compatibility with the App Store, he said. "One way to accommodate this might be by putting them in a window, similarly to how Canonical is now talking about running Android apps on the desktop."

Built-in wireless 3G: This seems fairly obvious, but while the iPhone has this, the iPod Touch and MacBook don't. The point of a tablet would be to get online quickly, download videos, books, apps, etc., so this seems fairly certain if Apple were to make a tablet.

Incorporate the best parts of the iPod Touch, such as a multitouch screen, an accelerometer for quick switches between landscape and portrait mode, and built-in App Store access. Apple's pinching and zooming multitouch screen is what gets iPhone users all giggly. Imagine those gestures on a much larger surface: swiping through photo galleries and album art, drawing with your fingers, and zooming way in on tiny photo details would all be enhanced on a 7-inch (or so) screen.

AppStore access is a must. It's insanely popular--having passed a billion downloads in April after just nine months open for business. It's bringing in a decent amount of revenue to Apple, and is drawing hordes of developers to Apple's platform. A larger screen presents even more opportunities for things like gaming apps.

Innovative text entry system: Apple's already demonstrated this. And with more screen real estate on a potential tablet, a larger version of the iPhone's virtual keyboard seems like the most obvious direction for Apple to go here. It would vastly increase usability, and depending on the size, could even afford room to touch type with both hands.

iSight inside: An integrated camera could turn such a device into a mobile video-conferencing system. It presents a great application for business use--video conference calls from anywhere--as well as consumers, for example, giving parents face time with their new freshman away at college, even when he or she is away from their laptop.

A built-in mobile video camera could also take advantage of bar-code reading apps to get more information about products, or perform image searches with apps like SnapTell , already featured by Apple in an iPhone TV spot. Take a picture of a book, DVD, or cereal box with the built-in camera, and it brings up information about it from sites like Google, IMDB, eBay, and others.

Be able to watch multiple full-length movies on a single charge: A Mac tablet with a screen around 7 inches, as is rumored, would presumably be primarily for consuming media, so the ability to watch a full-length film on a long airplane ride would be great. "Good power performance will enable that," said Daniell Hebert, CEO of Moto Development Group, a consumer product development lab in San Francisco. That means the screen can't be too big a drain on the battery, and how background applications are handled will matter, too.

Be an e-book reader: E-books are hot right now. Though Steve Jobs memorably said " people don't read anymore ," he's been known to bash product categories before jumping into them. Apple has approved plenty of e-book reading apps for the App Store, so the prospect of an even larger screen would be very appealing for reading books or newspaper articles.

The price has to be right: We know Apple doesn't do cheap. It's the same reason the company has repeatedly said it won't do a Netbook. An Apple tablet would likely be priced below the cheapest MacBook at $999. Apple watcher Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray happens to believe it will be tagged between $500 and $700 . And if an iPod Touch is $399 for 32GB, the Kindle DX is $489, it shouldn't stray too far above $500.

Though some are hoping for mention of a tablet from Apple at the Worldwide Developers Conference that's taking place in just over a week, it's probably not a good bet. Besides the fact that the focus of WWDC recently has been all iPhone, Munster says his sources in overseas manufacturing believe such a tablet device wouldn't be ready until 2010 at the earliest. In the meantime, let us know what features you'd like to see in a device like this from Apple.

 

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