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Thursday
Dec242009

Here Comes the Unicorn - the Promise of the Apple Slate

There is now little doubt that Apple will announce some sort of tablet computer late in January. Although the Apple tablet has been anticipated for years now, it would be unfair to call it vapourware, as it has never been announced or even hinted at by anyone in Cupertino. The better metaphor may be hardware unicorn. It is a fabled, cryptozoological object; possibly glimpsed and possessing, legend has it, great beauty, elegance and power. If it, in fact, walks the Earth at all.


Let’s imagine it does. What might it be and what might we, as journalists, do with it? It seems now that the first Apple tablet will be seven inches on the diagonal, giving it about four times the surface area of the iPhone. It will also probably be the first in a series of tablet devices from Apple. Well, really, the second, since the iPhone/iPod Touch are arguably the first in the tablet lineage.


We can expect an update to both the iPhone and the iPod Touch in June to bring them in line with whatever industrial design and processor upgrades the tablet - let’s call it the Slate - will introduce. So, the Slate line will begin with the seven-inch version, with a probable release date in March or April. Rumour suggests that a 10-inch version will arrive later in the year. This will give users a small, medium and large Slate version to choose from. Within those sizes there will, no doubt be variations based on connectivity (WiFi only or WiFi/3G), processor power and possibly screen (although I think that less likely). Let’s talk about the screen.

Apple could go with the same display that it uses for the iPhone/iPod Touch. But, new Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens are starting to show up on other devices like the Zune HD from Microsoft and the Nexus One phone from Google.


OLED screens offer brighter, sharper images with less power consumption. But, they’re also more expensive than the LCD screen on the iPhone. Nonetheless it’s unlikely that Apple can rest on its laurels for screen display. It could use OLEDs on a seven-inch screen but that would make the device pricey and we haven’t heard any rumours of Apple buying up a lot of seven inch OLEDs. But, for that matter, the only supply chain rumours we’ve heard so far are the one about the company purchasing a lot of 10-inch LCDs. So, it is possible that the seven inch Slate is a unicorn and that the first Slate will be a 10-inch with a conventional LCD panel. This is, afterall, just speculation.


There’s also a darkhorse to consider here. Pixel Qi is an e-paper display company that has created a LCD screen that is readable in sunlight and in lowlight. The California/Taiwan company claims its screen (which have been used in the One Laptop Per Child computers) offers the best of e-paper technology (like on the Kindle) along with full-colour and refresh rates suitable for video.


So, it is possible that Apple will use a Pixel Qi screen. That would make the Slate a real rival to the Kindle for e-book reading, would give it potentially great battery life and also the ability to show video. However, it is unlikely that the Pixel Qi screen would match the clarity and vibrancy of OLED technology. That means that in a side-by-side comparison the Slate would look dowdy compared to a Zune HD. It’s hard to imagine Steve Jobs standing for that.


Of course the screen will respond to multitouch gestures like the iPhone/iPod Touch. However, I think we can expect to see the vocabulary of gestures increase to accommodate the larger screen’s capacity to deal with two hands and ten fingers. Expect a great on-screen keyboard (perhaps with some haptic feedback), but there is no chance Apple will allow a physical keyboard to be attached, tethered or connected via Bluetooth. That is just not the Apple way.


There is a strong rumour that the underlying OS for the Slate will be basically the same dialect of OSX used in the iPhone. In fact, some key developers are being encouraged, according to the mill, to create fresh versions of their apps to take advantage of a Slate’s larger screen real estate. That probably means that existing apps could run unaltered in small iPhone-sized windows on the Slate screen.


Think of that like emulation-mode in the early versions of OSX. Emulation mode let OS9 programs run under OSX. Several months ago we saw a leaked and possibly fake demo of apps doing just this on a prototype Slate-like screen. If such an “emulation mode” exists, it would be, I imagine, short lived as really, it would be a better experience all around if apps took advantage (or could take advantage) of all the screen real estate. That would still leave room for widgets like in the OSX Dashboard now.


And, it’s likely that the Slate OSX/processor will allow more than one application to run concurrently. The iPhone can do this now, but only with Apple applications. A Slate won’t be a viable laptop replacement without this concurrency unless, like in the Chrome OS, everything is happening in the browser. That’s an unlikely strategy for Apple. And, speaking of the browser, certainly the Slate will use WebKit as its web engine (it’s what underpins Safari). It will not support Flash, opting instead to fully support HTML 5 in Webkit. That will enable video/audio embeds to rival Flash and in an open source manner.


So, what would the Slate be used for? As my iPhone programmer friend Mark Pavlidis has pointed out to me, the iPhone is all about access to the Web. He thinks the Slate will be all about access to all the other media.
I think that’s a smart observation. Apple wants its new device to wipe the floor with the Kindle, the Nook and the Sony Reader. The company wants those devices to look like Selectrics next to the Slate. It’s fairly certain the Slate will be a kickass e-reader. Apple will probably create its own e-book software as the best e-reader on the iPhone, Stanza is now owned by Amazon. So, unless Jeff Bezos wants to toss in the towel, it’s unlikely Stanza will be the defacto Slate e-reading software.


Apple will also create an Apps Store experience for media: books, apps, magazines, newspapers, movies, music and television. It’s halfway there now. With its recent purchase of Lala, Apple has signalled its interest in getting into the streaming media business. It certainly has the server capacity for that. Making the media streaming would be a great advantage for a wireless Slate. It would mean the device itself would not have to have a great deal of storage (say only 16G or 32G) because most of the media it would play would be streamed to it either from a home network or a streaming media store in the Apple cloud.


So, if this unicorn exists, what does it mean for journalists? First, it’s going to be the go-to device for the early-waiting-for-the-kettle news junkie fix. It will be a very convenient way to see last night’s video news, listen to the radio and read-in on newspapers and blogs. It will also be your book reader, typewriter and web browser. With the exception of doing the post-production heavy-lifting for audio and video, expect it to do everything a netbook/laptop can do now. It won’t fit in your pocket, but neither does a paperback, newspaper or netbook.


In terms of media production, we’ll need to rethink graphic design, granularity, geo-specific news and social media integration. Programmers, artists and journalists will have to collaborate as never before. Distinctions between radio, print and television will fade and become more interesting discussions about the intricate dance of audio, video, words and diagrams driven by open civic data crunched like granola.


Apple wouldn’t create a unicorn if it didn’t think it could change the game. It’s a big gamble. The first Slates will be expensive and will be snapped up by early adopters, just like the first pricey iPhones. Will Slates become commonplace on GO trains and coffee shops? In two years, I think so. Will publishers and TV execs hop on board? I think so.


Do I believe in unicorns? Yeah. 

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