Oh my. The Mac community is abuzz with yet another rumor of a forthcoming Apple Tablet—which is odd. Steve Jobs has publicly spoken about netbooks, declaring, “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk and our DNA will not allow us to ship that.” The iPhone and iPod Touch are already good handheld computers…it is tough to see where a larger tablet-format screen would add any value. If the iPhone is too small, get a MacBook or MacBook Air. Battery life is already touchy on small portable devices, and touch screen tablet computers (apart from kiosks, fast food PoS systems, and some delusional Microsoft product roadmaps) have generally proven to be niche products with limited broad market appeal. Given these constraints, is it mass hysteria to believe that an Apple Tablet is coming, or is this like the speculative storm that gathered around iPhone rumors before MacWorld 2007?
A recent report from the NPD market research group pointed out that Apple commands a stunning 91% of the market for PCs costing $1,000+. Contrast this with the price of the average netbook, which is around $300. David Strom, writing in the InfoWorld “Tech’s Bottom Line” column expressed displeasure with Steve Job’s assertion that Apple could never produce a quality computer under the $500 price point, “Excuse me? I guess the sub-$500 computer that I purchased doesn’t count—namely, the iPhone.” The only problem there is that the iPhone really isn’t a sub-$500 machine. It may look like one to the end consumer, but let’s not forget the AT&T subsidy being paid for each iPhone sold. And yes, the old 3G may be available for only $99, but it still sold for well above $500 in its time.
Other developments in the Mac universe point to Apple pursuing different, less flashy goals. Following the under-the-hood improvement model being pursued with Snow Leopard, Apple is somewhat quietly building up a massive data center on the East Coast of the United States. Cult of Mac has a great interview posted with Rich Miller, editor of Data Center Knowledge, about the construction of this new space in Maiden, NC. Apart from some witty vernacular (Miller comments that the sheer size “…place[s] it among the largest data centers in the world… This would qualify as a big-ass data center.”), there are other, more interesting implications. Apple currently maintains a west coast data center that hosts MobileMe services and serves up iTunes store content; the size of the new NC data center is nearly five times that of the existing space. So this is not for redundancy or scaling up current capabilities. A data center this size could point to delivery of more HD content (HD movie purchases?)—think of the difference in movie sizes for SD vs. HD in the iTunes store today: 1 GB vs. 5 GB. Multiply that by several thousand movies, and suddenly you begin to see where extra hard disk space is essential!
Another possibility for this massive data center is a repository for user-generated content. Several fantastic possibilities open up here: What if Back to My Mac was available from any computer anywhere? Rather than connecting to your home computer, any computer could connect to your home folder hosted on an XServe sitting in NC—NC can stand for both North Carolina and Network Computer! Apple could also take the iLife and/or iWork suites into the MobileMe cloud: web-based versions of each app could deliver simplified interfaces to content that is available on-demand anywhere. That Keynote presentation doesn’t need to be moved to a flash drive before you present, just pull it up in your browser. Impromptu dance party? Log into iTunes.com and rock out to your favorite playlists. We’ve already received an iDisk app for the iPhone OS, and iWork readers are available. Cloud storage neatly removes the iPhone’s storage limitations (both size and the lack of data availability across applications), and MobileMe has been on a slow but continuously improving track towards a full fledged cloud platform.
Tablets, especially one with Apple’s slick multitouch interface are, let’s face it, quite sexy. They are also hugely impractical, given the form factor, and the ways we are accustomed to interacting with computers (netbooks seem like a great idea, but poll users who aren’t serious road warriors and you will find dissatisfaction with the screen and keyboard sizes). Ultimately, what good does an Apple iTablet do? It does not deliver a better user experience than the MacBook Air, it gives you a larger (more power hungry) screen for gaming, and it is a large, fancy, and likely expensive media tablet. Does the world even want that? In reality, Apple already has a tablet computer. Several, in fact: three generations of iPhones and the two of the iPod Touch. Again with the Snow Leopard analogy, Apple seems to be approaching product development from an incremental improvement angle, rather than a sexy/flashy/hyped flagship product rollout angle. And Apple is very good at focusing on product niches where it excels to the exclusion of all others. Given that the iPhone and Mac OS are both stable platforms, improving on current success seems to be the smartest strategy. Which, all in all, points to the fact that the Mac tablet, much like the resurrected Newton, will remain a dream. Then again, Steve Jobs also said that Apple would never build a phone, so who knows?