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Apple’s Tablet: Soaring Expectations, Hard Design Problems

by Ray Valdes  |  January 27, 2010  |  1 Comment

If Apple does not reveal its long-rumored tablet tomorrow, there’s a chance that Silicon Valley will fall into the ocean, so great will be the disappointment.

I don’t know what the device will be called, but I like iTablet over other possible names (iSlate, iPad, iCanvas) that have been rumored. The word iTablet resonates with a Biblical heft — compared to the unassuming school-boy iSlate, the slapdash iPad, and the flapping-in-the-breeze iCanvas. The iPhone was dubbed the “Jesus Phone” by bloggers who saw it as the Second Coming in mobile devices. No one has yet dubbed this new device the “Moses Tablet“, but the night is still young.

What will the device look like? I don’t think it will be like this picture.

I’m not as old as Moses, but I do recall seeing my first tablet-like device in 1988. This happened one evening in a south-of-Market loft, where Robert Carr and a small team had built a prototype of what eventually became the Go pen computer. The version I saw was handwired and lacked a case, but was (partly) functional. It would be four years before the Go device would actually hit the market (1993) along with competitors Grid Compass (actually a precursor), Momenta, and various devices running Microsoft Windows for Pens. The portable pen computer concept seemed hot then, but now seems tepid compared to the white-hot hype today around Apple’s device.

Go’s initial device had rough edges and was undercut by Microsoft’s Windows/Pens introduction (an inelegant layer on top of the Windows API, but nevertheless an effective weapon against competitors). Eventually, Go was bought by AT&T, which repackaged the Go technology in the form of the EO Communicator.

In Eo’s design, the faint resemblance to Mickey Mouse ears does little to garner any kind of Biblical resonance.

Actually, there are folks older than me that do remember an earlier vision of a tablet device, the Dynabook. This was not an actual device, but a visionary concept from Alan Kay, who came up with this in 1968. Kay is a computer-science legend, due to his invention of the Smalltalk language in the early 1970s at Xerox PARC. The Dynabook concept predates the founding of Xerox PARC, and was driven by Kay’s interest in childhood education. Wikipedia, as always, has a lot of good detail on this.

This smattering of history should be enough to give pause to anyone contemplating building a tablet device today. The track record is mixed: pioneering innovations, hardball competition, high expectations, followed by underwhelming success.

Design Challenges

Even after all these years, there is a residue of some hard-core design problems to solve or revisit:

  • how to grasp: the usual scenario of one-hand holding the device and another tapping at the keyboard or scratching with a stylus seems fatiguing and may lead to pieces on the floor, especially if the device is made of smooth aluminum. It’s possible that the design goal is not to allow the user to enter a lot of data, but instead to use it as a reading device, like the Amazon Kindle
  • how to enter data: none of the usual choices seem satisfactory, whether a one-handed physical keyboard, an on-screen virtual keyboard, or an input method based on handwriting recognition (and if the method requires a stylus, forget it). Again, perhaps the use cases will minimize data entry and content creation, opting instead for facilitating content consumption.
  • how to preserve the fragile glass screen display: especially if young people are using it. I have seen my share of cracked iPhone displays. Breakage seems highly likely, unless one opts some kind of clamshell cover. Such an approach would likely rile Job’s aesthetic sensibilities — he would probably consider such a design to be like a laptop whose keyboard has been amputated.
  • Limited battery life: nothing new to those of us with iPhones, but this would be exacerbated by the larger-format screen display. When there is a lot of real estate for users to work in, this means that users might actually use the device on a continuous basis — the result is that system runs hot and drain the battery (at least that is what happens with my Macbook)

This is just an initial list, likely there are others. But if anyone can defeat the Goliath-size set of design challenges, it would be Jobs & company.

Market Challenge

However, in addition to the design challenges, there is a market challenge, in that the Apple tablet seems to sit right on the collision course between two classes of devices:

  1. smartphones such as the iPhone, and
  2. lightweight netbooks (a category that the MacBook Air could be considered a part of).

Apple will need to elbow aside other competitors
(including its own devices), to get some room to for market maneuvers.

Apple has one key advantage that none of its historical precursors had: a relatively frictionless and pervasive channel for developers and content authors to distribute and monetize content and apps through the Apple iTunes store. Without this key element, a sorry outcome would seem inevitable. With iTunes, there is a fighting chance for success. If the design team at Apple is able to come up with innovative solutions to the design problems listed earlier, this device may have as much impact as the iPhone.

We’ll know in just a few hours.

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Ray Valdes
Research VP
9 years at Gartner
30 years IT industry

Ray Valdes is research director in Gartner Research, where he is part of the Internet Platforms and Web Services team. Read Full Bio

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