What I want from the Apple tablet

Tommorow, Steve Jobs will walk on stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and unveil Apple’s latest creation, as their media invite calls it. Unless you’ve been on retreat on Phobos, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The Apple tablet. I’m hoping it won’t be called the iSlate (= ‘is late’), or the iPad (= some digital female sanitary product), but whatever the label, this device will change the publishing world.

Don’t believe me? Hmm. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they don’t see how a tablet is anything special, or how it could revolutionise publishing. It’s not like we don’t have all the requisite technology anyway, and the Apple ‘is late’ tag is apt given that there are a lot of tablet computers out there, and a lot of ebook readers out there. Some are successful, some are not. More are coming.

So big deal. Who needs an oversized iPod touch, right?

I think there’s a misunderstanding here. It’s not that this is going to be a whole new form of computing, with new innovations in technology and hardware. It’s the way that Apple will take pre-existing ideas and technology and combine them, creating a characteristic Apple user interface and wrapping it in their award-winning industrial design to create something new.

Before the iPod was released, there were loads of mp3 players available. But the iPod had a new interface and a new design, and it caught on. Likewise the iPhone. There are hundreds, thousands of smartphones available. But the iPhone, for a lot of people, has the best UI and design.

With less than a day to go, here’s my list of things I want the Apple tablet to be and to do. This isn’t a pro-Apple rant. It’s not an anti-not-Apple rant either. These are just things I want to be able to do with an Apple tablet. Some of this should be announced tomorrow. Some of it will take a while – years, maybe – to come to fruition. But the tablet is the first step.

I want to wake up to new content

With an always-on wifi or 3G connection, I want all of my magazine subscriptions auto-synched while I sleep. On Wednesday morning, I wake up, check my emails, and have this week’s pull-list of comics from DC and Dynamite. On Thursday morning, I wake up, check my emails, and have this week’s Radio Times. Every four weeks the new issue of Fortean Times arrives. Same for newspapers, if I read them. They’d arrive every morning.

But there’s more than just replacing magazine print subscriptions with electronic ones. If the tablet can deliver an exemplary reading experience, I want to subscribe to publishing houses. For an annual fee, I’ll take everything from Angry Robot Books, thanks very much, delivered to my tablet on release. If you’re a Warhammer fan, how about a sub to the Black Library? Any publisher – a major house, a small press, a nice imprint – can start delivering content directly and, importantly, in bulk. There’s not a single title from Angry Robot that hasn’t been an excellent read, and I’ll happily take the rest of their output on spec. For larger houses like Pyr – likewise an excellent genre imprint – a full subscription would probably result in a phone call from my bank manager, but what about a random sub? Three books each month? Or how about all new titles released by your three favourite authors? I imagine it would be the same for fans of a particular romance publisher, or crime publisher, or whatever publisher.

There’s no manual control needed, if I choose. My subs are delivered, on time, regularly, without the vagaries of the postal service. With the full-colour, almost full-size screen, I can read all of my magazines at my leisure. I don’t need to receive paper copies of anything ever again. With good eReader software, I can become a patron of a publisher or author at the tap of a button.

I want to use it everywhere

I travel a lot, and the dilemma of book selection for a plane journey is one that should be familiar to a lot of people. If you leave tomorrow and there are still 50 pages to go, do you take that, knowing that you’ll have it finished quickly and will have to lug a redundant brick of paper around for the rest of your trip? Or do you pick a new book? Or if you’re a fast reader, do you take two, or three? Pretty soon you’ve filled your hand luggage and most likely your overstuffed suitcase for the return.

For travel I now take my iPod touch. Using Stanza, or any one of a number of stand-alone eBook providers, I can take hundreds of books with me everywhere. Reading off the screen is no issue, as most readers have a variety of options to improve the experience, such as white text on a black background, and variable text size. Sure, it takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s not a problem.

If the screen was bigger, it would be better. If I could approximate the real size of a trade paperback page, I’d probably read a lot more eBooks. This is what the Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Nook, et al, aim to achieve – more or less real-life dimensions of a print book, and with their eInk screens, an easy reading experience.

But more important than the odd plane trip, I want to use it everywhere, every day. I don’t want to lug my laptop to bed. I don’t want to flip open a netbook on the couch, no matter how petite it is. I don’t want to sit at my desktop computer for hours reading comics or books. And, perhaps most importantly for me, I don’t want to battle with the internet on my tiny iPod touch. If I’m watching TV and I want to look something up on the internet, I want to pick up the tablet from the coffee table and do it. No laptop, no keyboard, no tiny iPod touch screen that requires constant pinching and scrolling. The iPod touch and iPhone are fine for tools like Twitter or Facebook, because the interface of apps for these are designed for the small screen. But the full-blown internet experience in Safari isn’t.

eInk doesn’t matter

And this is why I don’t want a Kindle or other eInk-based device. They’re fine for straight text. They’d also be fine for newspaper content. But full-colour, glossy magazines? Nope. Browsing the web? Nope. Playing games? Nope. Checking emails maybe, but integrating with Twitter, Facebook? Nope. The Kindle and its ilk are single-use devices, and the eInk screen is no good for anything by reading text anyway.

Except here’s the thing: it’s not even needed for that. As I said, I read a lot of text off my iPod touch, with its glass-fronted, full-colour LCD panel. Glare has never been a problem. Reflection has never been a problem. Eyestrain has never been a problem. Okay, it has a small screen, and these issues would be increased with a 10″ display, but really, I’m happy to accept these potential issues for full-colour, full-motion electronic content. I don’t need eInk.

I want to be able to afford it

The tablet might be expensive. The 64GB iPod touch is $399 + tax. Apple’s base Macbook is $999. The tablet must fall somewhere into this gap – it can’t be cheaper, or the same price, as the touch for a significant larger device unless they cut the price of the touch. It can’t be more expensive than the Macbook or they’ll be in for criticism, and the Macbook is a more powerful computer anyway. The tablet isn’t a computer replacement, it’s a whole different device.

The problem is that people are too used to paying $200 for a hunk o’ junk netbook, or $500 for an under-specced, under-powered laptop. Good tech costs, although the “Apple premium” is actually a myth if you compare like-for-like. Apple simply don’t do low-end devices, they do mid- to high-end.

It’s also no use comparing it to the Kindle, or the Nook, or the Sony Reader. The Kindle is $259 (or $489 for the Kindle DX), but these are single-use devices. I know that Amazon have opened the Kindle to app developers now, but there really isn’t much you can do with that eInk screen.

The current rumour is that the tablet will be $1000 stand-alone, or $399-$499 with a 3G contract. Some sources claim the $1000 is way off. Perhaps that’ll be another surprise for tomorrow!

Can Apple deliver?

Will the tablet deliver on any of this? Technology-wise, certainly. There’s nothing new here, we have the know-how and hardware. Apple’s design – which includes software and hardware combined – will be second-to-none. All of this is possible. It might be expensive, at least to start with.

What will be harder to changing the mindset of content providers and gatekeepers, to get them to embrace this digital vision. The technology is there, we just need the will. Unfortunately, some will fight this vision tooth and claw, whether it is out of self-preservation, stubbornness, or lack of understanding.

So that’s what I want (the tablet, not the fighting!). What we’ll get tomorrow might match my requirements very well; then again, they might not. Come back on Thursday and we’ll see how my checklist squares up with the real deal.

But what do you want from a tablet? Will the tablet change the world, or will it flop like the G4 Cube or the Newton? If you don’t want an Apple tablet, what do you want?

Comments are open!

  • We agree! Stay tuned. Closer than you think.

    Marco @ Angry Robot

  • Okay, now I am officially excited 🙂

  • Rich Wilson

    Adam, did you write this entry? If so, I'm confused as why you're talking about dollars instead of pounds? I thought you were English, living in England…

  • I certainly did write it. Given this is about an as-yet unreleased Apple product, with the US as the country of origin, it makes sense to discuss its price point in US dollars. Prices outside of the US vary widely due to local taxes and currency conversions, and if the tablet won't be available in the UK for a while (which is what one rumour claims, that like the iPhone, it will be US-only for the initial release) then it's difficult to discuss it in terms of pounds Sterling.

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  • Rich Wilson

    Okay, makes sense, and I apologise if I caused offense. Really enjoying both your writing and your thoughts on this site. Good work.

  • No that's fine Rich, you do raise a good point. When the tablet is announced later today, I'll talk about US vs overseas pricing in my follow-up.

    Glad you are enjoying the blog!

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