Thursday, November 08, 2007

Behind the rumors: is it an iPhone Pro, or a Mac touch?

According to recent rumors, "Asus is helping Apple build a Tablet PC." This comes only a few weeks after a rumor suggesting the return of the Newton handheld computer.

I strongly believe that (a) a new device is coming indeed, and (b) it will sport a MultiTouch interface.

But is it going to be an extended iPod touch/iPhone, or will it be a modified Mac? I think both are possible. Here's what I think about these two (not mutually exclusive) scenarios.

Mac touch

Tablet PCs have failed only because they were horrendously badly executed, and were saddled with ridiculous ideas. No usable keyboard? Why the hell would anyone want to interact with a computer via handwriting? Isn't typing demonstrably faster? Hello?

That doesn't mean, however, that a tablet PC is inherently a bad idea. On the contrary: at worst, eliminating a physical keyboard could easily save space and cost, ushering in a new class of unexpensive, miniaturized PCs. At best, a new set of thoughful metaphors could emerge, with several advantages over traditional input mechanisms.

The iPhone has shown us all that Apple gets it. The iPhone interface features direct manipulation metaphors that arguably beat everything else out there, including the mouse and the trackball. It can also simulate a keyboard, though the lack of physical feedback is a disadvantage. (Apple may be working on a solution there: I sure hope they are.)

How difficult would it be for Apple to modify Mac OS X in order to accommodate a MultiTouch user interface, complete with a usable onscreen keyboard? A stylus would probably be included for precision work, but most tasks could be achieved using your fingers. Just imagine your daily work on a Mac, and imagine using your fingers instead of the mouse: I'm hard-pressed to find anything that would no longer be doable. (Things like right-clicking would need clever substitutes, though.)

It can be argued whether or not "direct manipulation" of objects on the screen would be better than using a pointing device on a different surface. However, some new metaphors, borrowed from the iPhone and from trackpads of Apple's laptops, could definitely provide a superior experience. Think about two-finger scrolling, page-turning gestures, or the zooming "pinch": these certainly beat scroll arrows or "next page" buttons. And yet further multi-finger gestures could be born, something that no mouse could ever accommodate. (And besides, even single-finger gestures are much easier and more natural than their mouse equivalents: operating a mouse is not that easy; we've just all gotten used to it.)

Specs: If Apple believes the "Mac touch" to be a potentially superior device, one that would one day supplant both the desktop and the notebook form factors, shipping large and powerful configurations would make a lot of sense. If Apple only views the "touch" as a companion device, whose main selling point is its miniaturization, then obviously, we're only talking about smaller configurations. Maybe there would be a "Pro" class, even, featuring different storage and size options.

There's a minimum screen size below which the device would be hard to use; thus I don't think we would see a Mac touch with a screen smaller than 8" or maybe even 10". Larger configurations could be just about any size, even 20", though I would be surprised if Apple actually shipped such a huge Mac touch at the device's debut.

The small version(s) would definitely represent a breakthrough in miniaturization, so it's questionable whether they would even feature optical drives. I imagine a very thin form factor, dominated by a huge screen, one or two buttons, speakers, a microphone, and Bluetooth, WiFi, Ethernet, USB and FireWire interfaces. It would definitely use batteries. As for internal storage, smaller models could avoid hard disks and use flash memory; a larger (Pro?) family could perhaps use both (as well as an optical drive).

Pros*: Compatible with existing Mac; full-featured; no need for Apple to port OS or apps
Cons*: Form factor too large for some uses; no real breakthrough in miniaturization; probably costly

iPhone Pro/Newton

I've always yearned for a time when miniaturization would endow a handheld device with the full functionality of a computer. Then I realized that it's not as simple as that. In order to be successful and usable, a tiny computer needs a different, well thought out user interface – it can't just run the OS of its full-sized siblings.

This is why I was so ecstatic about the birth of a new platform this January. Apple's handheld OS X and other related technologies have proven themselves to work beautifully, and they are bound to make their way into other products. Since then, they have already given birth to the iPod touch: a somewhat premature development in my opinion, but a necessary one to keep the freshness of the iPod brand (I'd wager heavily that most iPod sales come from the nano and maybe the classic.)

What if Apple were to release a similar, though somewhat larger device, one that could function as a supercharged PDA and/or a stripped-down Mac?

After all, most of the work is already done. The technology is there, all Apple needs to do is build a larger device, write some additional apps (or port some existing apps over to it), and voilĂ : there's your new Newton, powered by iPhone technologies (perhaps without the phone part, though)!

As an aside: I'm relieved that my iPhone predictions are turning out to be overly pessimistic in light of the SDK that Apple announced. We still don't know from Steve Jobs' musings how open the platform is going to get, or how smart Apple itself is going to make the phone – will it sprout a clipboard any time soon, for example –, but at least, the phone will further tap into the huge potential of having OS X running on a handheld device. However, I'm still not sure if the iPhone will ever be intended to become a true PDA or handheld computer. I think Apple will strive to keep simplicity as one of its main virtues. So, there may be room for a more powerful iPhone-like device in Apple's product matrix.

Specs: This would be a handheld device, though a somewhat larger one than the iPhone. It would expand on the capabilities and features of the iPhone – or of the iPod touch. (It's a good question whether it would double as a cellphone: such a functionality would certainly be welcome, especially for internet access, but having to commit to a monthly plan would also turn away some potential users. Maybe two versions would emerge, one with, and one without a phone.)

It would probably ship with enhanced versions of iPhone apps, as well as additional ones written by Apple. All in all, it would be a new-ish platform; an evolutionary development over the iPhone, but perhaps consummating the revoution it started.

Bluetooth, WiFi, flash memory would be a given, anything else (Ethernet, USB, etc.) could be anyone's guess.

Pros*: Smaller form factor; possible cellphone functionality; potentially lower price
Cons*: Incompatible with Mac software; still not a full-blown computer; yet another platform for Apple to support, and for third parties to develop for

* Pros and cons: a comparison between the two speculative scenarios.

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