How the Apple Tablet Could Fail

Wednesday Jan 6th 2010 by Mike Elgan
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Each of these possible challenges is based on things Apple or its CEO have actually said or done.

Hype over Apple's tablet, officially still a rumor, is reaching fever pitch. Commentators, including me, have predicted with varying degrees of certainty that the device will succeed in the market, and transform how we all do mobile computing.

It's easy to see why the preemptive press on this non-existent, unconfirmed, never-before-seen product is so positive. All Apple would have to do is release an iPod Touch with a 7-inch screen, and they would have a killer device on their hands. In other words, Apple has already proved itself in the touch "tablet" arena. They just need to ship a bigger one. Mere size would make the device a much better movie player and TV and a better laptop or netbook replacement.

(The smart money is on Apple unveiling the tablet this month and shipping it by summer.)

It would be easy, however, for Apple to fail miserably with its tablet, just as it did with the Newton years ago. Yeah, I said it. Apple might fail. If they do, here’s how they’ll do it.

1. Ban keyboards.

The iPhone and iPod Touch have no keyboard, and Apple doesn't make one as an add-on or optional accessory. Worse, the company actively bans, suppresses or blocks iPhone-compatible wireless keyboards from being manufactured and sold by other companies.

Annoying, but fair enough. Apple wants the iPhone and iPod touch to be elegant, peripheral-free devices, and also to force users to master its on-screen keyboard. I get it.

But the Apple tablet must have a physical keyboard for two reasons. First, a real, wirelessly connected keyboard transforms the tablet into a notebook, netbook and smart-book replacement. If I’m forced to buy a separate netbook so I can do real typing and writing, then I’ll buy the netbook and skip the tablet. Second, Apple's competitive tablets will have keyboards, and having no keyboard option will put Apple at a disadvantage.

This seems like a minor point, but it’s actually a major one. The old-and-busted tablet format hawked by Microsoft OEM partners involved a laptop where the screen swiveled around the center, enabling you to close it with screen side up. The idea was to give you the option of using it as a regular laptop, or as a tablet. Of course, the interface was pen.

These "convertible" tablets never caught on, except among a small minority of pen-happy users with deep pockets. They were just like regular laptops, but significantly more expensive, slower, thicker and heavier.

Next-generation tablets, which will become very popular in 2010, will dispense with the older tablets' more annoying features, namely pen input in favor of touch, desktop operating systems in favor of cell phone OSes, instant on and great Internet connectivity. One of the coolest features that will be available for some of these new tablets is already showing up in devices at CES: Removable keyboards.

Mobile devices always struggle with opposing objectives. Users want the smallest, thinnest and lightest possible device for portability, but the largest possible keyboard for fast typing. How do you achieve this?

Lenovo is hawking at CES a product called the Ideapad U1 Hybrid, which looks like a standard netbook. Until, that is, you remove the display and take it with you as a fully functional touch tablet.

Freescale Semiconductor is showing at CES a "tablet reference design" of a "smartbook," which is in fact very smart. It has a 7-inch screen that drops into a cradle at the back of the base unit, which is a pretty large keyboard.

Both these products have the right idea, but share a minor flaw: The keyboard must be physically connected to the display.

After a great deal of experimentation, the industry will discover that the best form factor is one where the keyboard can be separated from the display during use. Just prop it up with kickstand, and connect to the keyboard via Bluetooth.

If Apple embraces the wireless keyboard and kickstand model, it will position itself to own the future of mobile computing. If the company blocks keyboards the way it does with the iPhone, the tablet won’t be a netbook replacement, and won’t dominate the market as it could.

2. Charge too much.

The best netbook on the market is the Sony VAIO Signature Collection P Series netbook. But its supremacy doesn't matter because the $1,900 price means nobody buys it. Have you ever even seen one? Neither have I.

Apple will be competing in the tablet space against a phalanx of competitors slugging it out in the $300 to $500 range. If Apple wades into these shallow waters with a device that's more than $900, game over. Sure, a few deep-pocket members of The Cult will buy one, but the device won't become ubiquitous enough to fulfill all the prophecies about transforming the market.

Next Page: Require a mobile broadband subscription....

With both iPod and iPhone, Apple has gotten used to making huge profits on hardware, even if it takes a bath on the sale of content. So if Apple expects a 40-percent markup on the hardware, the company may find itself in Sonyland with big profits on tiny unit sales.

Apple should instead reverse the strategy: Make little to nothing on the tablet hardware to maximize unit sales, then earn big profits on TV subscriptions, HD movie sales, books and other content.

Apple could dominate the coming tabletsphere, and with it, Hollywood. But with low unit sales, Hollywood will find plenty of competitive devices to play on, and Apple will have missed its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

3. Require a mobile broadband subscription.

The ideal Apple tablet would connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi or via a tethered iPhone. Optionally, it should be able to have its very own mobile broadband data connection.

If Apple sells the tablet like it does the iPhone, with no authorized unlocked option, the gadget will fail. The number of people willing to carry two mobile data contracts is low. The number willing to buy a connected device that does not require another contract is high.

4. Ignore eBooks.

The coming tablet creates an embarrassing situation for Apple CEO Steve Jobs. When asked his opinion about the Amazon Kindle eBook two years ago, Jobs said that "It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore."

Jobs says a lot of brilliant, insightful things, and this wasn't one of them. Reading should be one of the Apple Tablet's "killer apps," and by killer I mean it could literally kill the dedicated eBook reader category if they do it right.

I think they probably will. But the fact is that Jobs said what he said. If he really believes reading it dead, Apple could do nothing to exploit the huge and growing demand for a better eBook.

5. Move too fast into "gesture computing."

I'm on record in dozens of columns predicting a breathtaking future of multi-touch computing for phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. In that future, "gestures" will rule. Circle documents with your finger, then swipe them off the top of the screen to delete them. Draw a "K" on screen to conjure up the virtual keyboard. That sort of thing.

The iPhone represents the most minimal foray into this new world of gestures. Flick your finger to scroll through contacts. Reverse-pinch on pictures to zoom in. It's all easy, intuitive stuff, and presented no barrier to iPhone dominance.

But Apple could get ambitious about immersing users into a whole new vocabulary of gestures with the tablet. Make the learning curve too steep, and the new tablet could become a laughing stock.

This is more or less what happened with the Apple Newton MessagePad. The initial handwriting recognition system, called Calligrapher, could be challenging to use for the first two weeks of operation, as the system "learned" the user's handwriting style. But that contributed to a user perception that the Newton involved a "learning curve," and the device became the source of mockery in a wide variety of places, including even the "Doonesbury" comic strip.

Please note that these aren't predictions. With Steve Jobs personally in control of the tablet project (allegedly!), rather than John Sculley, who spearheaded the Newton project, the Apple tablet is likely to be amazing.

But these potential pitfalls aren't taken out of thin air, either. Each and every one of them is based on things Apple or its CEO have actually said or done.

So what do you think? Will Apple win or fail with the tablet?

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