In two days, Apple will introduce its long-awaited tablet computer, and as the event approaches, I’d like to offer a little insight into what I—and the rest of iLounge’s editors—have been hearing and discussing about the device for the past year.
A few points need to be established up front. I hold no Apple stock, have received no Apple briefing on the Tablet, and know only what my sources have been whispering about it for months. You know from my years of work for iLounge that I have been far more willing than some to criticize Apple when it has made short-sighted, anti-consumer, or otherwise bad moves, and that I’ve been willing to live with the penalties issued for speaking truth to power. Nothing has changed in these regards, and I continue to believe that my job is to be honest, objective, and open with you at all times, regardless of what Apple does or doesn’t do. iLounge is not and will not be a place for false enthusiasm or mindless bandwagoning, and we only cheer the company on when it truly deserves praise.
That having been said, discussions with friends and family this weekend made me realize that something probably hasn’t been conveyed thoroughly enough over the past few months while tablet details were becoming concrete: iLounge’s editors are genuinely excited about what is about to take place this week. All of the rumblings, rumors, and back-and-forths on the tablet have obscured what is likely to be one of the most important events in Apple’s history—one that may well eclipse the iPhone in terms of directly measurable impact on people’s lives—and it’s worth an editorial to discuss why this is.
Back in September of last year, we published a list of Apple tablet (“iPad”) details that came from a highly reliable source. Less than a day later, after someone took and amplified the report, there was a lot of buzz surrounding our item #7:
“It is designed to expand the iPhone and iPod touch media concept to its next potential level: as a slate-like replacement for books and magazines, plus all of the media, gaming, app, and web functionality of the iPhone and iPod touch.”
In other words, think Amazon’s Kindle plus an iPod touch or iPhone and you’ll be on the right track. This dispassionate explanation was reiterated yesterday in a comment I made on a separate article; responding to a reader who said that “we have no clue what this thing will do,” I summed the tablet up as an “iPod touch/iPhone 3GS in HD + Kindle DX + new UI.” But despite the simplicity of the summary, there was something that felt emotionally wrong about that act of reduction—sort of like calling a motorcycle an expensive bicycle with an engine and more aggressive styling. I’ve had the same feeling every time I’ve read or said the words “big iPod touch” or “big iPhone,” as it leaves so much out of the picture.
When I was asked by friends and family to share my thoughts on the tablet this weekend, the key word I used was “transformative.” As I said almost a year ago, the power of an Apple device paired with an iTunes Book and Magazine store would be unbelievable, blowing Amazon’s Kindles away with “color magazines, books, web pages, and… iPhone apps,” while “planning for what printed publications should look like five years from now, not trying to replicate how they looked 20 or 200 years ago.” All of the evidence that has followed over the past year has confirmed this, most notably glimpses at next-generation magazine and newspaper interfaces from several publications, each either implying or stating outright that they’d been designed for an impending Apple tablet. Even in the absence of an officially announced product, Apple has inspired old media companies to start thinking forwards with a passion they’ve barely been able to muster for the past decade.
Here’s another example. In April of last year, food-focused author Michael Ruhlman released a book called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. Ruhlman’s book states that accomplished chefs can skip written recipes by understanding the proportions of only several key ingredients to one another, making little tweaks to, say, the butter or the flour in a bread recipe to richen or soften the dough. Then, in December, Ruhlman released a $5 Ratio iPhone application that extended the book by including a number of recipe ratios and a calculator—complete with instant measuring unit conversions—so that cooks wouldn’t have to memorize the contents of the book in order to use it. One month later, Ruhlman improved the app’s calculator in an update. Rather than being conceived and sold separately, the next evolution of books will include these sorts of applications, obviously some more gimmicky than others, and the very experience of reading and learning will be evolved as a consequence.
This isn’t possible, obviously, in an old fashioned book. And it’s barely possible on the old fashioned book replicators such as Kindle that companies have been selling for the past few years. Because of their e-Ink screens and weak processors, Kindles and similar devices struggle to render five-year-old web pages properly; a multi-touch-equipped Apple tablet can provide color, interactivity, and an interface that transcends the web, pushes past PDF, and actually delivers new and legitimate value to consumers in the form of advanced rich media content.
People have postulated how this device will actually be used and sold, and at this point, the primary thing we’re concerned about is Apple’s pricing. (Let’s put the necessary Revision A discussion aside for the time being.) Apple has a history of launching base model first-generation devices with too little capacity, too high of a price, and some other random issue that turns away half or three-quarters of the potential early adopter market. This happens so often that we’re becoming convinced that it’s a deliberate strategy to either skim the market or limit demand for a product that the company knows it can’t yet produce in sufficient quantities to sate larger crowds. Assuming that it actually wants to stunt early adoption rather than roaring out of the gates, starting with a $699 or $799 price tag would be just the way to do it. At $399 or $499—without a required cell phone contract—these things go mainstream in a huge way. A price tag higher than $799 is all but inconceivable, and our gut tells us that Apple has been struggling with the right initial price tag for this device for months now, probably longer.
Why? Because it is and has been obvious exactly what Apple is hoping to accomplish with this device: yes, it’s pursuing magazines, but it’s also going after book publishers and more importantly educational book publishers—companies that have the power to transform heavy backpacks and lockers full of textbooks into digital versions that can live inside a device roughly as thick as an iPhone. The potential of this tablet goes well past iTunes U, and is effectively a play for the eyeballs and hearts of students and teachers everywhere. Imagine signing up for a college class and having your textbooks purchased with one click of a Buy Now button rather than a trip to a bookstore. Find a mistake in your textbook and an updated version could conceivably be available for free download the next day. At the right price point, an Apple tablet becomes a tool that every student carries, connects up to her or his full-fledged computer at night, and depends upon. More than an iPhone or iPod, yet quite possibly at the same time.
But at the wrong price point—one that even Apple knows is too high, like $700—it has to start making credulity-straining, amorphous “do we really need that” marketing claims like the ones that hurt the Apple TV. We’ve already seen some trial balloons floating around, one suggesting that the device is intended to be an entire family’s pass-around Internet device, a super-expensive but cool game console, or some other appliance of the future that will unquestionably have all the typical Apple skeptics rolling on the floor with laughter. Assuming that this happens, their predictions of failure won’t acknowledge the reality that virtually every first-generation Apple device comes into its own only a year or two after initial release, typically after the initial luxury pricing drops and a second version arrives to mostly fix the first version’s obvious shortcomings.
In any case, we’re truly excited to see how Apple presents the device to the world this week. A widely circulated report claims that Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been telling friends and associates that the tablet “will be the most important thing I’ve ever done,” and if the price and pitch are right, we definitely wouldn’t rule that out. Reducing the device conceptually to a Kindle-sized iPod touch or iPhone doesn’t capture the tremendous potential it has to transform the way we gather information and consume media. Hopefully, this editorial makes clear why we think it has a real shot at achieving that lofty goal.