Editorial: The Evolution of Apple Media Players Into Tablet Computers
Though some people may think of their iPods—particularly iPod touches—as miniature computers, it’s well established that they weren’t originally designed for this purpose; the first iPods couldn’t create anything at all. They started out as music players, triple underscoring the word “players,” and Apple spent years reluctant to let them expand much past that initial concept. In fact, though the iPod was introduced in 2001, the Apple-drawn line between iPods and computers only began to dissolve two years ago with the release of the iPhone and its Mac-derived iPhone OS. So as the company prepares to announce its new tablet, a device that will radically expand the user’s ability to create content within an iPhone OS environment, it’s worth briefly looking back at some history to provide a context for its upcoming new product revelations.
1. It Started With Newton. After a five-year run, Apple killed the Newton platform, an influential but only modestly successful early 1990’s predecessor to the iPhone OS that ran on a number of Apple and third-party PDAs. Designed as input devices and primarily called MessagePads, Newton-based PDAs could translate handwriting into text, create Notes, contacts, and calendar information, and run third-party applications, eventually including web browsers. Their multimedia functionality was limited, in part because of their use of black and white screens, but they were praised as the forerunners of subsequent mobile computing devices from numerous companies. In 1998, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the discontinuation of Newton in a press release, calling it “consistent with our strategy to focus all of our software development resources on extending the Macintosh operating system,” and promising at the same time to serve the “mobile computing market” with Mac OS-based products beginning in 1999. As history showed, the only Mac OS “mobile computing” products released by Apple from 1999 to 2007 were Mac-branded notebooks; the company otherwise abandoned heldheld computers.
2. Welcome to iPod. In 2001, Apple introduced the original iPod. By design, it created nothing on its own: it was, in essence, a slave to a computer with iTunes, given no leash to expand its content without a computer’s assistance. It was optimized for storing and playing music. For years, despite eventually adding color screens that could display photos and videos, iPods were primarily sold as music players with other features as bonuses.
3. Expansion Through Accessories. Subsequent iPods changed the playback-to-creation equation only a little, and then, largely due to accessories. Starting in 2003, Apple enabled certain iPods to store content created with microphone accessories, and for a time, digital pictures transferred from cameras via photo storage accessories. Years later, Apple permitted Nike + iPod accessories for the iPod nano to store running data recorded by a Sensor, and let this and other data be synchronized back to iTunes. But the company warned third-party developers not to go further in creating other types of hardware that wrote directly to the iPod’s database. Some developers ignored Apple and created accessories that literally subverted iTunes by writing music and video files directly to iPods from ripped CDs and DVDs. Apple blocked them, and repeatedly updated firmware and iTunes to stop the hacks.
4. Hacking and Early Apps. Starting in 2004, third-party accessory developers found ways to run their own mini apps—on-screen FM transmitter tuners, and so on—by taking over part of the screen during synchronization, a feature that Apple had never intended to be used this way. Apple blocked this in later iPods. Other hackers replaced the iPod operating system with Linux and ran other applications, including a simple port of the PC game Doom; these hacks attracted some attention, but barely spread beyond the hardest-core iPod user community, and were thwarted by repeated hardware and software updates.
5. Tiny Input and Storage Changes. Apple made only minor changes to the “iPod as media player” formula before the late 2007 release of the original iPod touch. After adding built-in games to earlier iPods, it enabled fifth-generation iPods to similarly use the Click Wheel as a input device for downloadable games. It quietly enabled audiobooks, video files and games to store data as to where they’d last been played, even transferring some of this data back to iTunes. Then, it added a simple search feature with an on-screen keyboard to newer Click Wheel iPods. None of these features really changed the “media player” concept, but they demonstrated that the devices could be used for more sophisticated input schemes and storage of data, though only in limited ways.
6. iPhone, Tearing Down the Wall. The iPhone and iPod touch were the first major watershed products to break down the “media player” barrier, transforming what Apple’s family of playback devices into pocket computers with input and on-device storage features, requiring greater synchronization with iTunes. Notably, the tension between the media player and computer features remained obvious for iPods as late as the end of 2007, when Apple was trying to decide whether the first-generation iPod touch should be capable of creating Calendar events, like the iPhone, or merely displaying them, like past iPods. The original iPod touch, as shipped, could only display events rather than creating them. There was no hardware impediment here; it was merely a question of whether Apple would allow the touch to run the same apps in the same way as the iPhone did. Its eventual decision to allow on-device editing, along with providing access to several apps previously reserved for the iPhone, helped to melt down the barrier entirely.
7. iPods As Media Creators. Though Apple had enabled certain past iPods to record audio with expensive third-party accessories, 2008 saw the company add support for inexpensive microphones to Click Wheel and touchscreen iPods. It went further in 2009, adding a video camera to the iPod nano, and planned to do the same for the iPod touch until component problems intervened.
8. Keyboard. The next missing piece became a reliable text input device. iPhone and iPod touch users have long debated whether the on-screen keyboard was an effective enough tool for typing, with some saying yes and others strongly believing otherwise. It is widely assumed that a larger-screened iPhone OS device will have its own improved on-screen keyboard, but will it? And what solution, if any, will be offered for iPod touch and iPhone users who want a superior input scheme?
To add a keyboard accessory to the existing iPhone OS, a new piece of software—a HID or Human Interface Driver—would be needed, most properly from Apple. Only Apple could unify all keyboard-dependent apps around a single input standard, rather than leaving multiple third-party developers to struggle for widespread adoption, leaving dissatisfied consumers at the end. There’s another interesting issue, as well: the connector. Would Apple use a 30-Pin Dock Connector for wired keyboards, or standard USB, instead? Or might it restrict keyboards to wireless connections only?
9. Stylus. Though Apple CEO Steve Jobs pooh-poohed the idea of using a stylus with the iPhone and iPod touch, there’s little doubt that some users are expecting an improved version of the Newton’s handwriting recognition feature to appear in an Apple tablet device, and a pen-like implement would be needed for such an interface to work. Styluses have been released for the iPhone and iPod touch with relatively little interest from consumers, but an Apple-developed version would surely be smarter and more precise than the blunt, foam-tipped options that we’ve previously tested. Those willing to use their fingers to sketch Chinese characters already have a handwriting recognition solution in the iPhone and iPod touch, but there’s nothing for English and most other languages, and little sign that writing this way would be appealing to most users.
10. Connectivity As a Challenge. But will on-device creation be the extent of the tablet’s capabilities? Surely, a 10” multi-touch screen could itself be used as a keyboard, a touch surface, or a second video display for a computer. Some of this functionality could be achieved wirelessly, and USB ports might well suffice for some wired connections, but video would likely demand a new port—the Intel-Apple collaboration called Light Peak, or the earlier, less powerful Mini DisplayPort video standard. Whether Apple fully taps the capabilities of the tablet device as a computer peripheral, or leaves it to stand alone, remains to be seen; similarly, whether it enables the tablet to interface with televisions will also be a major, important question mark.
Given the history of Apple’s Mac, iPod, and iPhone devices, what do you think it will do with the tablet? Will this device be primarily a media player, with expanded capabilities for books and magazines? A creative canvas for drawing and writing? Or something else? Share your expectations and hopes in the comments section below!
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