Apple's tablet plans — they're fully sick

The rumour wires have been buzzing lately with speculation regarding the “Apple Tablet” and, let’s face it, it’s tough to know who to believe. Let’s not fool ourselves, it is just speculation right up until the point that Apple actually starts flogging the thing.

That doesn’t stop the rumour mill lucky dip, or the analysts, or those who claim to have “sources” that indicate that by this time next week, you’ll be holding a shiny new iTablet with enhanced multimedia functionality and a special attachment for removing stones from horses’ hooves.

Gizmodo and PC World are both pretty down on the idea, largely on practical grounds relating to speed, ease of data entry and whether or not it’ll be a big iPhone or a tiny MacBook, and what that’ll mean for applications. I suspect they’re missing the point.

Tablets as a category have, to a man, disappointed me over the years. I can still recall sitting in the press conference launch for the Tablet version of Microsoft’s Windows XP, and ending up unimpressed. That had less to do with the operating system, however, and a lot to do with both pricing and hardware features.

The tablets of that time were overpriced, underpowered and ultimately lacked killer applications. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find — and still can’t — a Tablet that would interpret my handwriting correctly. For all the blather about handwriting recognition and how that’s more “natural” than keyboards, there’s a huge physical difference between writing on paper, which tends to have a natural physical resistance to an actual ink-based pen, and a tablet, where you’re gliding a stylus over a slick glass surface.

Can Apple overcome the interface and application problems of a Tablet? Perhaps. I suspect, though, that for all its prototyping and testing, Apple is perhaps not interested in bringing that kind of device to market right now.

Now, why would I say such a contentious thing in stark contrast to the accepted web wisdom? Well, largely not because of the application or interface problems. They’re problems, and problems were made to be solved. Apple’s pretty flush with cash and clever types in lab coats, and the combination of both over a long enough period of time can usually be counted upon to solve problems.

Where I think Apple may struggle to bring a tablet to market is placing it in its existing product lines. If you want something with a touch screen at a sub $1000 price point, Apple will sell you an iPhone 3G. Yeah, I know, the 32GB 3GS is a touch over that, but only just — and in any case, the popular perception is that mobile phones are still “free” on a contract. Apple’s making money either way on an existing and popular touch screen product.

But tablets are computers, right? Well, in that case, you’re probably talking a product that costs more than $1000. Apple’s shown no interest (and indeed active disinterest) in playing in the “budget” laptop space, and it’d be rather unwise to launch a product cheaper than the existing MacBook lines — especially with most available data suggesting that the entry-level MacBook is Apple’s best-selling personal computer line. A tablet — especially with the additional development, hardware and perhaps licensing costs — could adversely affect Apple’s bottom line, and I don’t think Apple’s interested in making less money.

There’s also the question of who exactly the iTablet is for. Apple’s faced this problem before with the G4 Cube, a technically interesting product that failed to find real market traction before slipping off the sales charts entirely. Again, if you need a notebook, Apple will sell you one at a premium price already. If you need a portable touch screen, the still quite new iPhone 3GS has plenty of momentum. Who’s the prospective buyer for an iTablet, exactly?

At present, only Apple knows what, if any, its tablet plans are for sure and, predictably, it’s not exactly forthcoming with the details. I’m sure Apple’s played with the idea, probably extensively. If you were able to rummage around in the skips behind 1 Infinite Loop, you’d almost certainly find hybrids of iPhones, MacBooks and even iTablets. Getting away from there with your loot would be a much harder act.

Got your own ideas about what Apple's up to? What about suggestions for what an Apple tablet ought to be or do? Discuss it in MacTheForum.

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