Positioning the Tablet

August 10th, 2009

Everything indicates Apple will soon release a tablet device, possibly this fall. As usual, details are scarce; the only thing that seems like a given is the screen will be less than ten inches.

We know very little about the device, or even if it will be released, but this hasn’t stopped some from declaring it a failure. PC World’s Michael Scalisi wrote:

The tablet form-factor in general is good only for a few things. It’s great for artists and for specialized applications like taking orders. Note-taking in class is debatable since many people are better at typing than handwriting. There are lots of things that tablets are not good at. Take watching movies, for example. Since a tablet is designed for lying flat, you have to be looking straight down to view the computer. Actually, that makes it suck for most things.

This seems to be the common criticism — the tablet will fail because the tablet form-factor limits its utility for general computing and watching video. The assumption is because the device is larger, to interact with it you must lie it down.

For watching video and to a lesser extent typing, this criticism is overblown. Rumors are the device will have a screen size between seven and ten inches. If you own a large (5″ by 8″) Moleskine notebook, pull it out. Diagonally, the Moleskine notebook is about 9.5″. Take the Moleskine, and hold it like you would an iPhone while watching video, one hand on either side. Now hold it like you would an iPhone while typing.

Not too bad. The Moleskine is a good approximation of the tablet, as it’s toward the large size of the tablet’s screen size spectrum. It’s also heavier than the tablet will likely be, so the tablet should be slightly more comfortable to hold. Even so, it doesn’t seem like such a bad way to watch a video, nor terrible to type on.

I realize this little exercise is sort of silly, but it’s useful to see just how small the tablet would actually be, and on its own, how comfortable watching video would be. A stand of some sort would certainly be more comfortable, but it should at least be as easy to hold as an iPhone.

Typing on the device, though, will still not be as easy as with a full hardware keyboard. You will not write papers on this device, and likely will not take notes on it, either. But I don’t think Apple plans to position the device for PC-like computing.

Positioning the Tablet

I am not very interested in the hardware arguments against the tablet, because I think the form-factor criticism is weak, and more importantly, largely irrelevant.

That criticism rests on the assumption that, like a netbook, the tablet should be a fully-functional Mac — able to do everything a Mac can do, within its processor and memory limitations.

Apple could build a netbook Mac, but it would be a terrible experience; Mac OS X would not run as well as it should, using it on a ten inch screen would be painful, and a cramped keyboard and trackpad wouldn’t be acceptable. Unique form-factors and input mechanisms require unique user-interface conventions, and that means its own version of OS X.

Moreover, Apple likes its products to have very specific and defined use-cases and users, and a Mac netbook, even if a pleasurable experience, would overlap too much with the MacBook.

So the best question isn’t will the form-factor work, but how will Apple position the device. What will its specific use be, and how will it fit in the product line-up?

More than any other company, Apple wants its product lineup to have a coherent logic behind it. John Gruber wrote last year:

And so if Apple, under Jobs, is tightly focused, what is it that they’re focused on? It’s not the pro market. It’s mobility — iPhone, iPod, MacBook Air.

John is right. Apple still develops desktops, sure, but the Mac Pro, iMac and Mac Mini receive much less attention than the iPod touch, iPhone and notebook lines, which indicates Apple doesn’t think desktops are the future of the company. Declines in sales of Mac desktops make a strong argument, too.

But I have one addition to it: Apple is focused on mobile devices with very defined uses.

The MacBook Air and iPod touch/iPhone have two very different, and very specific, use-cases. The MacBook Air is intended to be a relatively mobile computer that doesn’t compromise the screen and keyboard — it’s for professionals who move around often but still want a real computer. The iPhone and iPod touch are for browsing the Internet and consuming media anywhere, but usually for short periods of time (listening to music being the exception).

There is a large gap between these two use-cases; one is for relatively mobile no-compromise computing, and the other for completely mobile, time-limited Internet browsing and media consuming. One is for production, the other for quick consumption. What about a device that can almost fit in a pocket and is perfect for browsing the web, consuming media for longer periods of time, and some basic productivity tasks?

That’s where the tablet fits. The iPhone is the device you use to browse the web and check Twitter while running errands or at a friend’s house; the Mac is the device you use to get real work done; and the tablet is the device you use to read a book, edit a document, or watch a movie while in bed, on a plane, or in a coffee shop.

You won’t use it because it can do things the iPhone, or a notebook, can’t. You’ll use it because it’s much better at doing them.

A Better Reader

The iPhone has taught us that a device designed from the beginning — both hardware and software — for a very well-thought out use-case makes it much more powerful than a device which can do anything. Limits can be empowering, because you can design the hell out of that use-case at the expense of all of the others. The iPhone is designed to be mobile, for primarily consuming content, and doing it for short periods of time. And it does that really, really well.

The iPhone isn’t made to watch videos and read content for extended periods of time, or write documents. You certainly can read a book and watch a movie on an iPhone, but the experience is much better on a larger screen. Reading text on the iPhone’s small screen for more than a few minutes at a time can become tiresome, and constantly scrolling or flipping pages breaks that feeling of being immersed in the content. You can do it, but it isn’t the best option.

Movies are difficult to watch for more than thirty minutes at a time, too; the screen’s small size causes me to squint to see details. When watching a movie on my iPhone on a plane, I usually break it up into chunks to get around this.

But a tablet would be designed for reading and watching for long periods of time, and even for doing minor work. So the tablet is the device you use to browse the Internet and consume media when you have more time. Well, that’s nice, but ultimately not terribly interesting.

But what is interesting is this: how can it make reading e-books better? How can it make reading e-books as enjoyable as reading a real book?

The Kindle is a large step forward, but it turns out the Kindle has poor typography and cannot display illustrations and photos very well due to its low-resolution, black-and-grey screen. Nicholson Baker describes using the Kindle:

The problem was not that the screen was in black-and-white; if it had really been black-and-white, that would have been fine. The problem was that the screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray. The resizable typeface, Monotype Caecilia, appeared as a darker gray. Dark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle.

When you buy the Kindle edition of Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,” rather than the paperback version, you save three dollars and fifty-eight cents, but the fetching illustrations by Lorenz of a greylag goose and its goslings walking out from the middle of a paragraph and down the right margin are separated from the text—the marginalia has been demarginalized. The Kindle Store offers “The Cheese Lover’s Cookbook and Guide,” from Simon & Schuster. “The picture of the Ricotta Pancakes with Banana-Pecan Syrup may just inspire you enough to make it the first recipe you want to try,” one happy Amazon reviewer writes. She’s referring to the recipe in the print edition, the description of which is reused in the Kindle Store—there’s no pancake picture in the Kindle version.

I don’t think people want to step back ten years with screen technology just so they can read the device in direct sunlight.

Here is a perfect chance to turn what should be a disadvantage for reading e-books — the LCD screen — into an advantage over the Kindle. Like the iPhone, the tablet’s screen will (presumably) have a high resolution and large color gamut, so text will look crisp, and photos and illustrations will look incredible. This isn’t just aesthetics, though; a high resolution with a well-chosen typeface makes reading for long periods of time much easier and more enjoyable, and accurate illustrations are particularly important for textbooks.

The tablet can be the first e-book device that does justice to books.

The tablet is Apple’s opportunity to do what they do better than anyone else: obsess over the details, and make sure it is absolutely perfect. This is especially important with e-books.

More importantly, though, its large screen and touch interface can help make reading e-books a more natural experience. My biggest objection to e-book readers is I can’t easily highlight sections and take notes. The Kindle can do it, but using its control pad to select text, and its keyboard to type notes, is clunky. But the tablet has an even better interface: touch. Just tap where you want a note to be, and begin typing it; just tap and hold to begin selecting text that you want to highlight.

But here is where it can get better. What if, after reading a chapter for class and highlighting a few sections for the paper due in two weeks, those sections synced wirelessly to your Mac along with their citation, ready to be included in your paper and bibliography? And what if the notes you made alongside the text, notes bursting with insight for your paper, synced too?

Think about that: no more flagging sections of a book so you remember where an important section was, or flipping through it to find highlighted passages. No need anymore to go back and make proper bibliographic entries for each section you cited.

Apple’s strength isn’t that they make products which are radically different from others in their functionality. Apple’s core strength, I think, is their ability to see what purpose that product’s functionality serves in people’s lives. By seeing that purpose, they can design the product to be really, really good at it, and pare down the excess features.

I have no idea if Apple is working on those features, or even if the tablet will be an e-book reader. But I hope so, because this would make the tablet a must-have. Having your books, music, videos and photos on one device which does justice to all of them would be something special. That would be a new device worth Apple’s time and effort.

I don’t know what specific functionality the tablet will have. But I guarantee you it will not just be a larger iPod touch, or smaller MacBook, in how it’s intended to be used. It will do something new.