Friday, December 25, 2009

Tabula Rasa

Rumors and leaks about the forthcoming Apple tablet computer are running rampant these days.

It seems as if once everyone's Christmas shopping was done they started seeding the desire for the next thing. It's a good strategy: don't risk Christmas sales now for the upcoming products. They kept an airtight lid on everything tablet until Christmas Eve, when we learned that Apple reserved the Yerba Buena center for January 26th, Steve Jobs was "very pleased" with the tablet, that interacting with it was "shocking", that Apple has patented methods of deforming a smooth surface to add key edges, depressions, and malleable zones, and that Apple acquired a domain called iSlate.

This is an incredible torrent of information released in a 24 hour period after a product has been shrouded in secrecy for years. All this gets people thinking of the next big thing which could be theirs in a few short months.

Opinions range as to the function of tablet (as well as its size and other specifications). The most common applications noted are ebook / newspaper reading, video and audio (particularly using the new iTunesLP software), internet browsing, movie/TV rentals or subscriptions, and video chat. A popular postulation is that the tablet will use a combined e-ink and lcd display (such as the one Pixel-Qi is producing). Many believe it will run the iPhone operating system with some enhancements to allow for larger screen size, multitasking, and other uses. Others contend it will lean more towards Mac OS X or a hybrid between them.

Many industry analysts have predicted that the tablet will fall into a "slot" in the Apple lineup that is between the Mac Mini and the MacBook. The pricing tiers for the Mini are $599 and $799 while the MacBook starts at $999. That leaves $699 and $899 openings for a new product. Conceivably the Mini price could change (lower) to free up $599 or $799 as well, so there is some flexibility in the price tier.

Estimates for sales of the device are already in (with nary a look at an actual device!) and hover around one to two million devices a year.

So, with almost no official information we've got the name, size, uses, price, introduction date, innovative user interface elements, and sales nailed down. Or completely up in the air. The fact is that we don't know many of these things for sure and are extrapolating from existing information with a dash of our own desires.

While I feel the same sense of excitement about the forthcoming product I'm anticipating something more than just a cool tablet device. I believe that Apple is entering a new phase of its product platform and will add tablets to the line with a range of models. I see the existing product line looking something like this:

iPhone (and iPod touch)
MacBook (White, Air, Pro)
Desktop (Mini, iMac, Mac Pro)

I think we'll see a new entry in this table for tablets between iPhone and MacBook. I think tablets will be an entire product category on par with the others rather than an accessory device. Much like laptops used to be considered the portable, low-powered version of a desktop machine and have morphed into the standard computer, I think we'll see tablets take on a role as a different sort of portable device. I mentioned in an earlier post that Apple's iMac is seeing resurgent sales partly because people that recently bought netbooks and were ready to upgrade their main computer are opting for desktop machines rather than laptops. I think this effect will carry forward with the tablet devices. Some competition with the existing product line is inevitable.

The big question is if this device category can pull in new users or will it leech off of existing Mac and iPhone users. iPod and iPhone both reached out to non-Mac users and drew them into the Apple ecosystem, leading to increased Mac sales as well as device and iTunes sales.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Touch Screens on Laptops

Windows 7 is out and has built in support for touch screens. Tablets are undoubtedly a focus, but several commercials (and demonstrations for the past year or two) are pushing the technology for laptops and "all-in-one" desktops.

I've seen a number of demos of the all-in-ones with touch screens. Most of them use photo rotating for the demo which looks good but really isn't something that's going to sell me on a new computer or technology. I can't see spending a lot of time photo editting on this type of machine.

With a laptop my hands are closer to the screen, so reaching up to touch it, especially with one hand, seems like a pretty natural movement. I could see using the touchscreen to move windows on the screen (think expose), shrink and expand text or pictures, flick through a stack like coverflow or down a list like the contacts in an iPhone, or even pull up a menu and scan through it. I find reaching with one hand is quite a bit easier than reaching with two, so the multi-touch photo rotation is probably not a good bet.

Apple has multi-touch track pads which offer many advantages without requiring the user to touch the screen, but there is definitely room for innovation using the touch screen.

The key will be to get people used to it by introducing a small set of features that work well and offer a distinct advantage over using the keyboard, mouse, scrollwheel, trackpad, or other interface. Since a lot of laptops are used without a mouse the focus could be on supporting functions like click and drag which are tricky with a trackpad.

Recognizing that desktop, laptop, and tablet are different use cases is paramount. In the past Microsoft has struggled with that - Windows CE and Windows Mobile were essentially desktop Windows using a stylus which clearly was not the way to go.

I'm excited to see the willingness to expand the feature set, and hopeful we'll see improvements in usability and accuracy from it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Web Apps and Smart Phones

Following up on the PastryKit discussion, I was thinking about what phones will be like once the processing power, hardware hooks, and UI elements are in place to make HTML / JavaScript / CSS apps that are competitive with native apps.

I recall Steve Jobs saying that with iPhone Apple was moving the competition from a hardware feature comparison to a software comparison. (I'm paraphrasing and couldn't find a link to the actual quote - any help from out there would be appreciated). What is interesting is if all Webkit-based browsers can implement the same functionality, where will the distinction in phones come from?

Hardware features as before? Overall design? Software integration? App discovery and navigation? Multimedia playback, distribution, and discovery? Or will it remain specialized apps that work well on certain phones and not on others (for example, games that use intensive graphics)?

I think recent history has shown that hardware advantages are fleeting while true software integration takes longer to implement. Google has made impressive progress with Android and may be successful in getting hardware manufacturers to lower their margins and place Apple in the "premium price" category as they are with computers. Other phone manufacturers (Palm, RIM, Microsoft) have all faced delays workarounds to assemble the pieces needed for premium mobile ecosystems.

One significant difference between the smartphone market and the PC market that preceeded it is that the phones are primarily content consumers rather than content producers which makes interoperability much easier. This may lead to a marketplace that supports multiple OS and hardware platforms indefinately.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

PastryKit and the iPod

John Gruber posted on Daring Fireball about PastryKit which is apparently an Apple-developed framework for creating mobile web apps for iPhone and iPod touch. Gruber did a nice analysis of Pastry Kit and included a demonstration of a website ( written using it. He also explained many of the advantages it offers versus other web development tools and how it compares to native app development. I highly recommend reading the post if you are at all interested in mobile app development, be it native or web-based.

While reading about PastryKit and the idea of web apps on the iPhone it reminded me of a strategy Apple used to achieve dominance with the early iPod incarnations.

The idea Apple used was to adopt a different technology for a key component of the product, only to then adopt the original technology after it had matured and other competitors had been forced into defensive "follower" positions.

When the iPod was introduced in October of 2001 there were a number of other mp3 players on the market. Most of them used flash memory to store data and had capacities in the 128 to 256 MByte range. Apple entered the scene with a radically different technology - a miniature hard drive that held 20 times more music than the flash players. Other manufacturers were seemingly caught off guard with inferior products. Now, the Nomad was famously introduced around the same time also with a hard drive but it failed in the marketplace for other reasons. Once the iPod caught on and, with iTunes began pulling away from other competitors, Apple then introduced the iPod nano - based on flash memory. By this time, 2005, flash had improved enough put up to 4 GB in a first generation nano. Once again Creative, Samsung, Toshiba, even Microsoft had channeled their energy towards battling Apple with hard-drive based players and were caught flat-footed without flash-based players to offer up. This was a great example of Apple
"skating where the puck is going to be".

Now we have the iPhone and the Cocoa Touch development framework which has become the gold standard of native app development. When it was introduced the initial development platform (Steve Jobs' "sweet solution" for app development) was JavaScript, CSS, and HTML. Soon after, though, the SDK and App Store were introduced, causing a seismic shift in mobile app development. Other companies spent the next year and a half developing their own SDKs, App stores, and developer incentives. Now it seems Apple is putting some weight behind web app development. Might we see another case of other companies following as Apple leads?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Apple Takes Advantage of the Netbook Market

In September Apple introduced a new line of iMac and Mac mini desktop computers. Apple was running against the grain of the rest of the computer industry, which has trended largely toward notebooks and even smaller netbooks recently.

Surprisingly, the new desktop machines are selling well, based on analysis of NPD sales data by Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster.

I believe that the success of netbooks in particular is related to the success of these desktop machines. People buying low cost, highly portable netbooks are more than likely supplementing a "main" computer. As they begin to replace these "main" computers it makes sense to consider a desktop machine rather than another notebook. The desktops have more processing power and disk storage, bigger screens, and generally better keyboards than laptops. If you've covered mobility with a netbook, why not splurge for the nice screen and comfort of a desktop at home?

So while Apple isn't playing in the netbook market directly, I believe their recent investment in upgrading and improving their desktop line was done to take advantage of the same market. I'm not contending that desktops will make a total resurgence or that notebook sales will decline, but I think there was a bump in desktop interest that Apple predicted and capitalized on.

I will be interested to see any statistics on "other" computers owned by netbook owners in the future.