The Tablet

Another former Apple executive who was there at the time said the tablets kept getting shelved at Apple because Mr. Jobs, whose incisive critiques are often memorable, asked, in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom.

—”Just a Touch Away, the Elusive Tablet PC”, The New York Times, 4 October 2009

Here’s the thimbleful of information I have heard regarding The Tablet (none of which has changed in six months): The Tablet project is real, it has you-know-who’s considerable undivided attention, and everyone working on it has dropped off the map. I don’t know anyone who works at Apple who doubts these things; nor do I know anyone at Apple who knows a whit more. I don’t know anyone who’s seen the hardware or the software, nor even anyone who knows someone else who has seen the hardware or software.

The cone of silence surrounding the project is, so far as I can tell, complete.1

The situation is uncannily similar to the run-up preceding the debut of the original iPhone in January 2007, including many of the same engineers and software teams at Apple — such as those who built the iPhone Mail, Calendar, and Safari apps — disappearing into a black hole. The iPhone remained a secret until Steve Jobs took it out of his jeans pocket on stage at Macworld Expo. All of which is to say that what follows is my conjecture. Pure punditry, not one of those smarmy “predictions” where I know full well in advance what’s going to happen.

I have a thousand questions about The Tablet’s design. What size is it? There’s a big difference between, say, 7- and 10-inch displays. How do you type on it? With all your fingers, like a laptop keyboard? Or like an iPhone, with only your thumbs? If you’re supposed to watch video on it, how do you prop it up? Holding it in your hands? Flat on a table seems like the wrong angle entirely; but a fold-out “arm” to prop it up, à la a picture frame, seems clumsy and inelegant. If it’s just a touchscreen tablet, how do you protect the screen while carrying it around? If it folds up somehow, how is it not just a laptop — why not put a hardware keyboard on the part that folds up to cover the display? (Everyone I know at Apple refers to it as “The Tablet”, but so far as I can tell, that’s because that’s what everyone calls it, not because anyone knows that it actually even is, physically, a tablet. And “The Tablet” most certainly is not the product name.) If it’s too big to fit in a pants pocket, how are you supposed to carry it around? And but if it does fit in a pants pocket, how is it bigger enough than an iPod Touch to justify existing? And so on.

But there’s one question at the top of the list, the answer to which is the key to answering every other question. That question is this: If you already have an iPhone and a MacBook; why would you want this?

The epigraph I used to start this piece — the bit about Steve Jobs demanding that a tablet be useful for more than just reading on the can — indicates that Apple will release nothing without such an answer. I agree that such an answer is essential.

Successful new gadgets always seem to occupy a clearly defined place alongside, or replacing, existing devices. The Flip filled a previously empty niche for a small, cheap, simple video camera. How was the iPod better than existing portable music players? It fit 1,000 songs in your pocket, with a fun interface that let you find them easily. Why buy an iPhone to replace your existing mobile phone? Because there was a clear need for a modern handheld general-purpose computer.

But how much room is there between an iPhone (or iPod Touch) and a MacBook (or other laptop computer, running Windows or Linux or whatever)? What’s the argument for owning all three?

“I’d use it on the couch and lying in bed” is not a good answer. You can already use your iPhone or MacBook on the couch and in bed. It strikes me as foolish to market a multi-hundred-dollar device that people are expected to leave on their coffee table.

“It’s a Kindle killer” is not a good answer. If you think Apple is making a dedicated device for reading e-books and articles, you’re thinking too small. As profoundly reticent as Steve Jobs is regarding future Apple products, when he does speak, he’s often surprisingly revealing. David Pogue asked him about the Kindle a few months ago:

A couple of years ago, pre-Kindle, Mr. Jobs expressed his doubts that e-readers were ready for prime time. So today, I asked if his opinions have changed.

“I’m sure there will always be dedicated devices, and they may have a few advantages in doing just one thing,” he said. “But I think the general-purpose devices will win the day. Because I think people just probably aren’t willing to pay for a dedicated device.”

He said that Apple doesn’t see e-books as a big market at this point, and pointed out that Amazon.com, for example, doesn’t ever say how many Kindles it sells. “Usually, if they sell a lot of something, you want to tell everybody.”

Of course, this is the same Steve Jobs who back in January 2008 told The New York Times’s John Markoff:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

One could reasonably argue that the “people don’t read” comment, taken at face value, suggests that Apple has no interest in that market, period.

I, however, would square the two remarks as follows: Not enough people read to make it worth creating a dedicated device that is to reading what the original iPod was to music. (Everyone, for practical definitions of “everyone”, listens to music.) But e-reading as one aspect among several for a general-purpose computing device — well, that’s something else entirely.

The pre-Touch iPod was (and remains) an enormous success. It changed the music industry and rejuvenated Apple. But it was and remains a dedicated device; originally focused on audio, now capable of the sibling feature of video.

The iPhone, on the other hand, was conceived and has flourished as a general-purpose handheld computing platform. It was not introduced as such publicly, and is not pitched as such in Apple’s marketing, but clearly that’s what it is. The iPhone was described by Jobs in his on-stage introduction as three devices in one: “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, a breakthrough Internet communicator”. Thus, it was clear what people would want to do with it: watch videos, listen to music, make phone calls, surf the web, do email.

The way Apple made one device that did a credible job of all these widely-varying features was by making it a general-purpose computer with minimal specificity in the hardware and maximal specificity in the software. And, now, through the App Store and third-party developers, it does much more: serving as everything from a game player to a medical device.

Do I think The Tablet is an e-reader? A video player? A web browser? A document viewer? It’s not a matter of or but rather and. I say it is all of these things. It’s a computer.

And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.

I say they’re swinging big — redefining the experience of personal computing.

It will not be pitched as such by Apple. It will be defined by three or four of its built-in primary apps. But long-term, big-picture? It will be to the MacBook what the Macintosh was to the Apple II.

I am not predicting that Apple is phasing out the Mac. (On the contrary, I’ve heard that Mac OS X 10.7 is on pace for a developer release at WWDC in June.) Like all Apple products, The Tablet will do less than we expect but the things it does do, it will do insanely well. It will offer a fraction of the functionality of a MacBook — but that fraction will be way more fun. The same myopic feature-checklist-obsessed critics who dismissed the iPhone will focus on all that The Tablet doesn’t do and declare that this time, Apple really has fucked up but good. The rest of us will get in line to buy one.

The Mac is, and will remain, Apple’s answer to what you use to do everything.

The Tablet, I say, is going to be Apple’s new answer to what you use for personal portable general computing.

Put another way, let’s say instead of a MacBook and an iPhone, you’ve got an iMac and an iPhone, but you also want a portable secondary computer. Today, that portable from Apple (portable as opposed to the iPhone’s mobile) is a MacBook. With The Tablet, you’ll have the option of a device that will more closely resemble the iPhone than the iMac in terms of concept and the degree of technical abstraction.

The Tablet OS

The original 1984 Mac didn’t abstract away the computer — it made the computer itself elegant, simple, and understandable. Very, very little was hidden from the typical user. Mac OS X is vastly more complex technically and conceptually, as it must be due to the vastly increased complexity and capability of today’s hardware. But Mac OS X has always tried to have it both ways: a veneer of simplicity that doesn’t cover the entire surface of the system. The user-exposed file system is a prime example. On the 1984 Mac, the entire file system was exposed, but the entire file system fit on a 400 KB floppy disk. On Mac OS X, the /System/Library/ folder, one of many exposed fiddly sections of the file system browsable in the Finder, contains over 90,000 items, not one of which a typical user should ever need to see or touch.

The iPhone OS offers a complete computing abstraction. Under the hood, it’s just as complex as Mac OS X. On the surface, though, it is even more simple and elegant than the original Mac. No technical complexity is exposed. Hierarchy is minimized. It relegates the file system to a developer-level technology rather than a user-level technology. (Did you know the file system on iPhones is case sensitive?)

But so while I think The Tablet’s OS will be like the iPhone OS, I don’t think it will be the iPhone OS. Carved from the same OS X core, yes, but with a new bespoke UI designed to be just right for The Tablet’s form factor, whatever that form factor will be.

One common prediction I disagree with is that The Tablet will simply be more or less an iPod Touch with a much bigger display. But in the same way that it made no sense for Apple to design the iPhone OS to run Mac software, it makes little sense for a device with a 7-inch (let alone larger) display to run software designed for a 3.5-inch display.

The iPhone OS user interface was not designed in the abstract. It’s entirely about real-world usability, and very much designed specifically around the physical size of the device itself. The size and spacing of tappable targets are designed with the size of human thumb- and fingertips in mind. More importantly, the whole thing is designed so that it can be used one-handed. Even an adult with relatively small hands can go from one corner to the other with their thumb, holding the iPhone in one hand.

Mac OS X apps couldn’t run on an iPhone display because they simply wouldn’t fit, and the parts that did fit would contain buttons and other UI elements that were far too small to be used. Running iPhone software on a much larger display presents the opposite problem: it’s not that the UI couldn’t be scaled to fill the screen, it’s that it would be a waste to do so.

A 7-inch display isn’t twice the size of an iPhone’s, it’s four times bigger in surface area. I’m not sure even Shaquille O’Neal could hold a 7-inch iPod Touch in one hand and swipe from corner to corner with his thumb. Why would Apple stretch a UI designed to afford for one-handed use on 3.5-inch displays to cover a 7-inch (or larger) display that couldn’t possibly be used one-handed? If Apple’s starting with a hardware size where the iPhone OS can’t be used one-handed, then trust me, they’re designing a new interaction model.

Apple is not in the business of making monolithic OSes that they cram down your throat on as many widely-varying devices as possible. Apple is in the business of making complete products, for which they craft derivative OSes to fit each product. There is a shared core OS. There is not a shared core UI.2

If you’re thinking The Tablet is just a big iPhone, or just Apple’s take on the e-reader, or just a media player, or just anything, I say you’re thinking too small — the equivalent of thinking that the iPhone was going to be just a click wheel iPod that made phone calls. I think The Tablet is nothing short of Apple’s reconception of personal computing.


Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.
Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1846-1912)


  1. The only known breakage of the cone of silence around Apple’s tablet project I’m aware of are the meetings Apple has held with publishing industry executives. The way these meetings work, from what I’ve gathered, is as follows. Apple brings no hardware. They bring no software. They show no mockups. They do not even completely acknowledge that they’re making a new device. The people from Apple simply say something along the lines of, “If we were to create a new platform for book/magazine/newspaper content, would you be interested in offering your content for it?” Apple is, without any question in my mind, courting book and periodical publishers. But that doesn’t mean Apple trusts any of them enough to reveal or describe in detail what it is they’re actually working on. 

  2. That said, I would not be surprised to find out that The Tablet uses UIKit, a.k.a. Cocoa Touch, as its programming API. I don’t think the same apps will run as-is on both OSes, but I do think you might use the same set of APIs to write apps for both platforms. (Or, perhaps iPhone apps could run as less-than-full-screen widgets on the larger tablet display.) 

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