Apple’s Tablet, Cube-Shaped?

It’s the most hyped device of the moment, a device that nobody has laid eyes on without an NDA death-grip. While rumour and speculation escalate (sometimes giving way to apathy), little has leaked out of Cupertino. But nobody seems to be asking whether this tablet thing will be successful or not.

We have Jobs’ close scrutiny of the project, his encouraging dismissal of current tablets, the many apparent delays and cancellations, and we have some evidence of a greater Jobs’ vision. It all bodes well.

However, if Apple get any of the details wrong, the “iPad” could be its most notable failure since the Cube. In that case, sales will mostly go to Apple completists who want something to match their MacBook and iPhone. Analysts and investors want more. They’re hoping that Apple will transform the e-book industry the way they have the music player and mobile phone industries.

Get the price right!

That midas touch can falter though. Jobs was happy enough to trumpet the Apple TV but it’s gone nowhere. Apple have had opportunities to get the movie companies on board, they have the perfect distribution channel in the iTunes Store, and the once fashionable term, “the halo effect”, is still growing.

How did the Apple TV fail to gain traction? The price, mainly. What about the aforementioned PowerMac G4 Cube? Price again. Or the NeXT Cube? Price, of course. 24 years before the TV box, even the original Mac nearly failed on price until Quark found the perfect use for it.

All of those products were sound (unlike the first Newton when Jobs was deep in exile), often beautiful, aspirational and groundbreaking – but priced well above their usefulness. Will that be the tablet’s epitaph?

Going back to the Apple TV, this is a device with the primary purpose of allowing you to pay yet more money to Apple to finally get some content. Whereas Sony or Microsoft are prepared to subsidise their console prices as a loss leader, Apple’s never shown confidence in the Apple TV’s success and ability to recoup costs. If they don’t believe in it, why should we? It’s no wonder that the PS3 and XBox 360 are in so many living rooms – the right price was always number one priority. What will be the tablet strategy?

The suggested template for the tablet’s success is the iPhone. The iPhone took off when prices were slashed, though even at the beginning it captured customers, as well as the imagination, for a couple of reasons. One, everyone needs a phone (who needs a tablet?). Two, no other phone was close.

The Apple tablet won’t offer the same lead over a Win7 tablet, Maemo or similar. My last Nokia had a 2 or 3 inch screen, a keypad, a tiny little joystick and an unusable web-browser. An Archos, by comparison, already has a touch-screen, flashy interface, social networking features and a great browser. The advantages of the Apple product will be far more indistinct and cerebral.

Finally, if cynics called the iPhone a “toy” until version 3.0, then what’s this thing? Well for one thing, it’s a dream come true for the anti-Apple curmudgeons. Look at the fuss they made over minor missing iPhone features, because they once cut & pasted something on their WinMo or Symbian phone. The tablet is a gift.

How can Apple prove me wrong?

They can prove me wrong – of course they can. They’ve been making monkeys out of critics for the last decade.

They have, in their favour, a bunch of a fans who are already saving for a product they haven’t seen. They’ll have the media coverage and the tablet will keep popping up in high places – it can sometimes seem like the whole world are Mac users, but then a high-faluting conference is a very bad place to gauge market-share. For a long time, the incestuous circle of Twitterers, journos, celebs, marketing folks will keep its profile way above actual sales.

They have the iTunes store and a thriving eco-system of games and app developers that have become the envy of every platform. They’ll be jumping on the new device. They no longer need the classic keynote “…and here’s EA to show us Tiger Woods…” that used to crop up at MacWorld (now on Palm!) It’s a bridge to get this stuff on the Mac (and cream off the 30%), so Apple will be especially keen to see it work.

So, app developers will work hard to justify the platform and telcos will do Apple’s advertising for them. After Orange Telecom’s recent slip, we can expect the device to come subsidised with a mobile broadband contract. It’s not mass market, but it can’t hurt.

The screen is crucial. With a bog-standard laptop screen, it’s no good as an e-reader and that seems to be the one area it can justify itself to a gadget-laden audience. I’d like to see the stunning Pixel Qi screen in there, but there’s been no sign of it.

Finally, there’s the chance of innovation. Will it have an screen that magically undulates to form a physical keyboard? What’s this hinted-at new form of navigation? Not that, I expect – more likely a bunch of gestures that may or may not sink into average users’ consciousness, reminiscent of the MacBooks’ glass trackpads.

Finally… price again. $1000 is too much for an oversized iPod Touch and Mac hybrid. Jobs is persuasive, but he can’t put cash in people’s pockets. He couldn’t in 1984 and he can’t now. This is the crucial detail, so don’t get greedy Apple.


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