5 things I know to be true about the Apple tablet

If you're looking for leaked Apple tablet product specs and photos, this post isn't for you. But if you're interested in a hearty (and discussion disrupting) list describing what the product's impact already is (and will be, if released), please read on.

1. It's mythical. Like the sasquatch, unicorns or alien invaders (yeah, yeah, the truth is out there), the Apple tablet doesn't exist until someone finds one. Sure there are rumors and unconfirmed sightings. But no one outside Apple or its NDA-bound partners/developers really knows what it is, or if it really exists. The government may have successfully guarded its Area 51 secrets (downed alien aircraft or U.S. test plane?), but the G-Men are in many respects no match for Apple. No one protects super secret projects like Apple. Much of the information out there is likely false.

Some of the leaks and rumors also are likely misdirection, so that people look in the wrong direction. Apple CEO Steve Jobs is magician and master of the sleight of hand. As a product presenter, he cooly emphasizes benefits that make products seem larger than they are. As a protector of secrets, he lets rumors (and quite possibly leaks) lead expectations down blind alleys. Apple has every reason to let the rumors run wild. They're worth millions in free marketing. Whenever the sasquatch, unicorn or alien invader is revealed, people will be surprised how wrong were their expectations.

2. It's not ready. Assuming there is an Apple tablet (he, he, Applet) somewhere in hiding, it's not ready to ship. For all Apple's super secretiveness, there are too many rumors to dismiss. As production ramps up for the product, the more people that know about it will increase seemingly exponentially. According to early and late December rumors coming out of Asia, Apple has placed orders for touchscreens large enough for the rumored tablet. The secret will have to get out, if manufacturing ramps out.

More likely, Apple will do with the rumored tablet what it did with iPhone: Announce way ahead of manufacturing -- to keep the secret from getting out and to allow for FCC approval, should any be necessary. Additionally, Apple needs time to finalize content deals, which negotiations would be another source of leaks. That puts first product delivery a minimum four to eight weeks from the announcement. Apple will announce and ship later.

3. It's disruptive. Without there ever officially being a product, Apple's mythical tablet is hugely disruptive. For starters, look how much geeks are writing about something that doesn't exist -- at least not officially yet. On Saturday, I wrote "The world doesn't need an Apple tablet, or any other," trying to bring some sanity to the runaway speculation and rumors. That post stirred up geek emotions like nothing I've seen in years, and I thought geeks were supposed to be intellectuals. Marc Flores, Scott Fulton, Robert Scoble and MG Siegler were among the bloggers responding to my post.

I howled when reading the lead sentence to Siegler's rebuttal post: "If Joe Wilcox ran the computer industry, we'd still be using typewriters." For the record, in an era before PCs, I started using a typewriter for all written work at age 14. Today, I'd gladly dump the keyboard for voice notes that are automatically and correctly transcribed and would be searchable in audio or text form. Sign me up, baby. The keyboard is too slow for my creative brain. I'd take voice editing over keyboard writing any day.

But there is more disruption to come, assuming that the tablet -- I'll call it iSlab, for fun -- really exists in some super secret enclave. Apple has a long history of releasing disruptive products, starting with its first PCs and, of course, the graphical user interface Macintosh in 1984. Some others:

  • It was disruptive (and controversial) when in 1998 Apple shipped iMac with FireWire and USB ports as replacements for legacy ones.
  • Apple shipped DVD players as standard equipment on computers well ahead of Windows PC OEMs. I signed up for Netflix in February 1999 and watched the first movie on a PowerBook G3.
  • The iPod has been a series of disruptions, starting with the original 5GB hard drive model. The iPod nano was hugely disruptive, with Apple retiring predecessor iPod mini at the height of popularity and just as competitors brought copycats to market. It was simply brilliant.
  • The iTunes Music Store's opening in April 2003 disrupted other digital download stores, CD albums and even illegal file trading.
  • The iPhone is best, recent example of Apple disruption -- the device, applications store and online sync service. Smartphone isn't a new category, by any means. But iPhone redefined the category and brought magic and fun to using mobile handsets.

Whatever beast the iSlab turns out to be, it will be disruptive. Apple's corporate character won't suddenly change for iSlab. The product will be decisively disruptive. If not, about 1,000 geeks will have catastrophic heart failure they're so over-emotional and hyped up about iSlab. Say, there should be a medical disorder for that. Can you suggest a name in comments?

4. It's extensible. The iSlab will extend "the Mac as digital lifestyle hub concept" that Jobs introduced a decade ago, and it will extend the mobile lifestyle platform introduced with App Store in summer 2008. I can comfortably assert to know this because of Apple's consistent behavior developing and releasing new products. By the way, I first blogged about Apple's App Store/iPhone/iPod touch platform potential in July 2008 and February 2009.

The mythical iSlab will be about media creation and consumption, building off existing Apple products. This isn't exactly rocket science to figure out, so, please, could commenters refrain from sarcasm asserting so. Apple TV, iPhone, iPod, iTunes and, to lesser extent, MobileMe can share the same kind of content.

Here's where I want to speculate about modularization, such as extending iSlab with Bluetooth keyboard or mouse. But I'll refrain, since like most everyone else I don't know what the device really is (It might not be a tablet, folks). What I do know comes from seeing the shadows cast by the mythical device and the company rumored to be developing it.

5. It meets the six tenents of good design. In 2004, I put together four criteria for technology product design that I later extended to six. A well-designed technology product should:

  • Build on the familiar
  • Emphasize simplicity
  • Hide complexity
  • Let people do something new they wished they could do
  • Do what it's supposed to do really well
  • When displacing something else, offer a significantly better experience

I fully expect a successful iSlab to embody these principles, as have many other Apple products. The "when displacing something else, offer a significantly better experience" will be crucial if one of Apple's goals is to displace netbooks and even laptops. The iSlab's natural user interface must make the keyboard and mouse look completely antiquated by comparison.

I have blogged quite a bit about hands and touch as being the obvious user interface for any technology product, but particularly mobile devices. Human beings are tactile creatures. Here is an excerpt from one of my posts on the subject, from January 2008:

Anthropologically, the mouse and keyboard are, used together, an unnatural user interface. Human beings are tool users that experience and manipulate the world through five senses. There is little in human biological or cultural experience that equates to either device. Most tools are really extensions of the hands; the mouse and keyboard UI is neither. The keyboard is a particularly unnatural construct, by the way fingers are used or by keys' alphabetical organization, which is based on the number of times letters are likely to be used.

Multitouch is a more natural UI than mouse and keyboard as are other user interfaces that capitalize on any of the five senses. If iSlab displaces the mouse and keyboard, extending what Apple has done with iPhone, it could lead to a paradigm shift in computing -- away from the PC. But Apple is by no means alone working this area. Windows 7 has multitouch capabilities, too, and touch is standard on most recent smartphones.

6. One more thing. [Editor's warning: Some readers will be offended by the next three pargraphs.] In wrapping up, I want to express my disappointment about the blogosphere's reaction to Saturday's "world doesn't need an Apple tablet" post. I don't mind the vilifying blogs or comments -- I rather enjoy them; argument is a productive enterprise. Like most of my recent commentaries, the post was supposed to be disruptive. Geek hyperventilation about the mythical Apple tablet and its lift to Apple's stock price have simply gone too far. I hoped to generate some real discussion, by being intentionally disruptive. An Apple tablet with too many overlapping features with smartphones below and laptops above is one possible scenario, and it's recipe for modest success. But no one outside Apple's privileged few -- again, assuming iSlab is for real -- knows what the product is. All this hyperventilation and discussion is wasted time.

While I relish the pageviews, I consider Saturday's post to be a failure because it generated the wrong kind of discussion. This newer post is yet another attempt to be disruptive and to get people thinking more rationally about iSlab-- and, yes, the blog title is purposely provocative. I really don't take all this tablet talk all that seriously. But I can now see from the reaction to my Saturday post how much that geekdom has turned freekdom over Apple's rumored product. Some people have called Apple's iPhone the Jesus phone. There's something hopefully and unrealistically messianic -- that iSlab will save everyone from their ills -- about geek reactions to Apple's rumored tablet. Hallelujah, Jesus Jobs is coming on the clouds to save us all.

There's a sixth thing I know about Apple's tablet: The world is much larger than geekdom. In the real world, where people are impoverished and oppressed, handsets running Android and Symbian OS are more likely to improve lives than Apple's mythical tablet. The enormous positive impact of mobile devices on people living in emerging markets is something to talk about. That impact is real, not some geek fantasy. What do I really know about Apple's tablet? I know enough to see that there are more important things in life -- at least until the truth be told.

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