Can Apple Take The Tablet PC Out Of The Toilet?


What's worse -- picking the wrong technology product to get behind or failing to get on board the next big high-tech bandwagon? That's a question worth asking as buzz around a rumored tablet PC from Apple reaches a roar ahead of a possible product release early next year.

In terms of likely demand, is the tablet PC a Newton or a netbook?

Companies like Dell, Archos and even the technology blog TechCrunch have their own tablet PC entries in what is so far a niche market. Many observers feel that for tablet PCs to capture much broader market share, it will take a real game-changer from a company with a history of creating demand for new product categories essentially out of whole cloth.

Enter Apple. After more than a year of speculation, it's looking ever more likely that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is preparing to unleash a tablet PC in early 2010. Rumored specs and mock-ups for an Apple tablet have leaked out from Taiwanese component makers and various "inside sources" in recent months, countered mainly by the argument that Apple builds all sorts of test products without any of those prototypes ever seeing the light of day.

Then there's that alleged quote about tablet PCs from Apple CEO and head visionary Steve Jobs: "What are these things good for besides surfing the Web on the toilet?"

But perhaps that was then and this is now. Jobs may have killed the Newton personal digital assistant, a tablet precursor, about a year after his triumphant return to Apple in late 1996. And he has reportedly nixed a slew of tablet PC ideas ever since. Yet late last month, Apple rehired Michael Tchao, one of the original developers of the Newton PDA and a chief evangelist for the tablet PC interface.

That's widely seen as a sign pointing to the looming reality of an Apple tablet, as are the technology and ecosystem underpinnings for such a product that Apple has cultivated with its iPod, iPhone and App Store successes in recent years. Touch screens are far more popular than the original stylus-driven tablet interface, better hardware means battery life is finally up to par, the iPhone operating system and its developer ecosystem are robust and growing, etc. etc. Per Jobs, perhaps tablet PC designers have spent the time in the bathroom freshening up for a bigger stage.

The time for a tablet PC may finally be right. Unless it isn't, for reasons that even Apple might not be able to overcome.

The iPhone and imitative smartphones have proven that a touch-screen interface can be wildly popular -- for devices that are the size of an iPhone and its imitators. Are consumers ready to abandon the old, familiar DSKY interface for a device as large and versatile as a tablet PC? What about price? The rumored price for Apple's tablet is in the $800 range -- but increasingly powerful netbooks can be had for as little as $300.

Apple itself never jumped on the netbook bandwagon, pooh-poohing that form factor much as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously derided the iPhone to his ultimate chagrin. Apple has never publicly changed its tune on netbooks, even as sales of low-power laptops have exploded, but some observers believe a tablet PC is Apple's path to correcting what it may internally admit has been a missed opportunity.

And if all the rumors turn out to be just that and Jobs nixes a tablet PC yet again? It wouldn't be nearly as sexy a story, but Ballmer and Microsoft may just be waiting in the wings with one of their own.

Which brings us full circle to our original question -- is the tablet PC a perpetual dud or the next big thing? We may be about to find out.