Apple has announced another event. And, it will CHANGE YOUR WORLD FOREVER.
OK, OK… that may be a little hyperbolic. But there are a few things of note about this particular event.
First, there is the timing. Last year, Apple announced that they would no longer be attending MacWorld Expo, the traditional late-January trade show where Apple would provide the Keynote Speech, usually introducing an amazingly awesome product in the process. Apple said they didn’t like having to rush products through the holidays, struggling to get a demo and a working piece of hardware by January. Fast forward a year. Macworld Expo moves to February, and Apple is staging an event in… late January.
Now, why would Apple back out of the largest Mac-related trade show on Earth? Because they don’t need Macworld. It’s sad, but true. Those Stevenotes are live-blogged, bootleg-streamed, speculated on, and written about. It doesn’t matter when or where those Stevenotes are, bloggers and journalists (and yes, I believe these are 2 different jobs. Sue me.) will follow. PR and hype follow Apple, not the other way around.
While the timing of the event is of note (“Hey, Macworld! Eat this! I’m having my event anyway, and ahead of your schedule!! Pbtpbptptpbptbpt!), what everyone has been talking about is the new Apple slate/tablet/pad/flat thingy. There’s a lot of speculation about it, so I may as well jump into the fray. And for the record, I’m pretty bad at this. You can check out my predictions for the September 2009 event here.
This will not be named iPad. Or iSlate, iTablet, iTouch, or iJesus. I think there will be no “i”. The “i” is for phones and pods. Tiny things. This thing will be much bigger and more expensive. My guesses are, in order of probability: Canvas, Slate, or Mac Touch. I like the “Canvas” best, and fits with the invite, which is either paint splatters on a canvas or a flyover of seagulls that just ate some really colorful berries. The “Slate” came from a domain filing by Apple a few weeks ago, but I think that was a red herring. Did you notice everything at C.E.S. last week that runs “Windows 7 Tablet Edition” was called a slate? That’s because all those companies that make much bigger, heavier, and clunkier tablets read that Apple registered “slate” and tried to get in on it.
The Mac Touch also makes sense. One way Apple could justify a $800+ device is by putting it in the Mac family, not in the “i” family. I say: Canvas. But, to be honest, there’s a little bit of me that wants Apple to drop the “i” and the “mac” all together. Just make it an Apple. And call it a Newton. Pretty Please??
The OS Question
iPhone OS or OS X? The answer is yes, and no. The beauty of the iPhone OS is that there is one screen that all iPhones use. This makes developing much easier when you know what screen your App will play on. The big problem with Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Android is that there are a ton of different screen sizes, resolutions, and form factors to deal with. This means all graphics and UI elements need to either be: designed to the lowest common denominator, or be flexible and flowable. That second one’s hard without some SDK (software development kit) help.
The iPhone OS is great on a 3.5″ screen. It has a great UI, the best software keyboard available, and is easy to use with one hand or two thumbs. The problem is blowing it up. All roads lead to a 10″ screen on this new tablet, and your thumbs can’t reach all the way across the screen when holding it in both hands. So, a “blown up” iPhone OS won’t work. Also, we need to re-read the previous paragraph about fixed resolution on Apple App store applications.
My take: An iPhone OS based operating system (which is already based on OSX), with some additional features. I’m betting they’ll announce the iPhone 4.0 Software Development Kit, which will supply the tools to make iPhone and tablet apps. They may even change the name to “iDeviceOS”, or even just “iOS”. Developers can choose to go for iPhone apps, tablet apps, or develop a scalable app that works on both. Anyone who thinks the tablet won’t run the 120,000 iPhone apps that are out there is delusional. I’m guessing standard iPhone apps will run in windowed mode at native resolution on the bigger screen. Kinda like those dashboard widgets. Of course, Apple will come up with a nifty way for the tablet keyboard to work with an iPhone app floating in the middle of the screen, but how they do that is a mystery to me. And everyone else. But that leads to a new problem…
The tablet will multitask, but not like you’re thinking. The problem with multitasking on a mobile device is battery life. If you’re running, say, a Twitter client in the background, it wants to keep you updated. It does this by pinging the server every so often to pull in new information. The problem comes when you go to do something else, and forget that Twitter app is running in the background. Then it pings and pings and pings until your battery is dead. That’s the big reason Apple won’t allow it on the phone.
But, there’s more screen on a tablet, so this may be where a little desktop OSX makes it’s way to the forefront in iPhone OS. If I were designing this thing, I’d put a dock on it. Maybe not the traditional Leopard-style dock, but a dock that sits on one edge of the screen that holds all your running apps. If you swap away from Twitter, for instance, it would just swoop into the dock, and let you know it’s still working. And it will still support all those App store push notification goodies. Just a thought…
I’m running a GPS App, say Navigon Turn by Turn, and I want my passenger wants to find a restaurant. So said passenger opens Yelp and starts searching. Does this steal the GPS signal from Navigon? On a normal computer, it would. But because Apple came up with Core Services in OSX, and transferred them to the iPhone (and this tablet, which, by the way, still does not exist), it just works. Why? Because Core Services are at the OS level, not at the App level. Several different apps can know where you are in the world because the GPS chip reports to Core Location, and your location data is injected right into the operating system. Core Services are cool. They take a lot of the work out of developers hands, and make for a unified user experience by standardizing things like Location, Audio controls, Video playback, and tons more. Google it. Oh, and that fixed resolution thing? That’s pretty easy to overcome with Core Animation and Core Graphics.
Apple has been heading towards mobile multitasking for a while, and I think the tablet announcement and iPhone 4.0 SDK will unlock it.
So, multitasking? Yes.
The User Interface
It’s been said that the UI is “like nothing you’ve ever seen”, and I believe it. What you can guarantee, is that it will not be OSX with some touch slapped on it. I’m looking at you, Microsoft… A desktop OS is not a touch OS. Never will be. A mouse is a single-pixel pointer with a tiny onscreen arrow showing you where that pixel is. You can’t just move that paradigm to touch, where my ham hock of a hand with kielbasa fingers smush down dozens of pixels with each tap while simultaneously blocking 25% of the screen with my palm. That’s why all those Windows tablets suck. They don’t account for the anatomy of the pointer.
Remember way back in ’07 before the iPhone was announced? Everyone put up fan art predicting what it would look like. An iPod with a phone! A phone with a click-wheel! The only thing everyone had in common was they were all wrong. Apple came up with something out of left field, and despite doubts, it worked. It still works. It’s getting a little long in the tooth and could use a visual update, but the interface still beats everything else out there. If you read the Apple User Interface guide for the iPhone, you see how much effort they put into user interface. They figure out how large a button or toolbar has to be to be hit with a finger. They know how many pixels one has to traverse in order for the OS to register it as a “swipe” and not a “tap”. Now, scale this up to 4 times the screen real estate and add in a bunch more gestures. That’s why it works so damn well.
The issue will arise with input while multitasking. I’ve been super-interested in user interfaces lately, and could write a whole post on this, but here’s the short of it: On a “real” computer, the window that has focus gets all the attention from the input device. Usually a keyboard and mouse. But what happens when you add things like accelerometers, compasses, and GPS or cellular devices that also can provide input. Back to the GPS example. I know Core Location will take care of sharing location data, but the turn-by-turn apps also use the accelerometer and compass. What if my passenger wants to play Super Monkey Ball while I drive? If SMB takes over the accelerometer, will my GPS go all crazy and drive me into a lake Michael-Scott-style? These are things smarter people than I will figure out.
The tablet is going to be iPhone-ish, more than likely. A set of icons in a home screen, swipe, pinch, zoom… All that will be there. And then a bunch of stuff that will blow your mind.
For keyboard input, I’m guessing proximity sensors everywhere to see how you are holding it. If you’re holding it 2 handed (think iPhone thumb typing) and get to a text input area, a split keyboard will pop up, half under each thumb. If you’re holding it in your arm, clipboard style, a keyboard will float near the input area ready for one-finger tapping. If it senses it is flat on a desk, a nearly-full-size laptop style keyboard will appear.
I’m also betting a lot of the MacBook-style MultiTouch gestures will make it in there, like Expose, two finger scrolling, and the twisty-move.
What you can guarantee, though is that this tablet will be versatile, and the UI will change fluidly between e-booking, movie-watching, picture-viewing, app-running, and maybe waffle-making. Mmmm. Waffles…
Make no mistake. Whatever this is, it will be made to suck money out of your iTunes-shaped wallet. Rumors are flying, but it’s pretty credible that the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Condé Nast magazines have been in talks with Apple. I’d bet the Disney properties including Pixar, ABC and ESPN will be a part of this thing, too. It will play video like a champ, but also give you a new way to read magazines (watch out Zinio), newspapers (you’re welcome, Rupert Murdoch), and e-books (Kindle, we hardly knew ye…)
There are some (I’m looking at you, Leo Laporte) who think that it will have a Kindle-like WhisperNet service that will add a few hundred dollars to the price of the device, but then give you free access to content. I disagree. First, the Kindle WhisperNet delivers books. Just plain old text, at about 500kb per book. That’s a half a megabyte being shot through the air over a cell phone data network and landing on your Kindle as a $10 book. It’s just not feasible to do that with media. Imagine the back-end costs of shooting that version of Pippi Longstockings you just bought in HD over a cell network. First, it would take forever. Second, it’s over a gigabyte. That’s a number any cell carrier would balk at. This device will sync over WiFi and dock using a standard 30-pin iPod connector. That’s not saying cellular won’t be an option, but it wont be included, and will have the same limitations as the iPhone. OK, one caveat. Maybe there’d be a WhisperNet-type thing for book and newspaper content, but I still doubt it.
Sports Illustrated put up a nice demo of what they want to do for slate devices. See it at Vimeo.
The Hardware, and the Price
It’s pretty much confirmed (as much as you can confirm a mythical product no one has ever seen) that it will have a 10″ screen. The rest is up for debate.
I’m betting on a device that looks like the first generation iPhone. The front will be all screen, with the familiar home button, and that’s all you will see. The back will be mostly aluminum with the black plastic stripe that holds the radio. The sides will house the traditional mic and speaker holes, an 1/8″ audio input/output jack, a 30-pin dock connector hole, and an SD slot. Yeah, I said it. SD slot.
Inside, there will be WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth, with the compass and accelerometer and whatnot that every smartphone has these days. Some are speculating a SIM slot, for a bring-your-own data plan, but I think that will be optional. (Almost) no one wants another damn cell phone plan. They will offer low-cost ($10/month) tethering to iPhone customers. The rest of you are S.O.L. You should already have an iPhone anyway. The good news will be an expanded Bluetooth profile, allowing for keyboards to be paired with the tablet. Steve won’t mention that keyboard part, though. Touch is the future, so why would any luddite want a clicky-keyboard?
The Price? More than you want to pay, but low enough that you still will. I guess 2 models: A $699 model with an LED backlit LCD screen and 32 GB of flash memory. Then, there will be a $999 version with an OLED screen and 64 GB of flash. Otherwise, all specs will be the same. And I’ll buy the OLED version.
All this is rampant speculation, as happens in the weeks leading up to any Apple event. Whatever happens, we’ll be hanging on every word and Keynote slide. You can bet the presentation will begin with numbers (a billion iPods sold!, A trillion Apps downloaded! iTunes is the number one music seller in the universe!) and will progress to uneventful updates to existing product lines. Then Steve will do the “one more thing” thing and pull something magical out of his hat. And I’ll be pre-ordering whatever gets revealed.