An overdose of tablets and the Apple unicorn

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We're not even half way through January and we've already seen more tablets than at a Hunter S. Thompson house party. It seems like every major (and a lot of minor) computer manufacturers whipped up a tablet computer for the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. A tablet computer? Imagine a netbook with the keyboard torn off. Or, an iPod the size of a trivet. Or, just watch a Star Trek rerun.


We saw tablets that popped off the top of regular laptops, tablets with double screens like an open book, tablets with e-ink screens. Tablets with colour screens. Tablets with both. Frankentablets. It was like looking at a swarm of tablet lifeforms before natural selection culled the herd.


Why so many tablets? Because of the one tablet that wasn't at CES. The long-rumored Apple tablet. There is now little doubt that Apple will announce some sort of tablet computer later this month (probably on Jan. 27). That tablet has been anticipated for years. It is a sort of hardware unicorn -- 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.


All the manufacturers at CES were trying to steal Apple's thunder by announcing a tablet before Steve Jobs. But, here's the problem. Despite all the variations on a tablet theme, there wasn't a clear answer to the question; What's the use case? If I own a smartphone and a laptop (or netbook), why would I buy a tablet?


I DO have a laptop, netbook and smartphone. I didn't see a single tablet coming out of CES that made me think, "Man, I need that." What could Apple do that's different?


Veteran Apple observer and blogger John Gruber thinks he knows. Gruber thinks Apple is out to replace the laptop. He imagines a tablet computer that's so powerful, useful and user-friendly that students who are now carrying around 13-inch white MacBooks will be toting 10.5-inch tablets.


The rumour mill has that Apple tablet capable of running HD video, displaying e-books, having GPS, Bluetooth, a virtual keyboard and wireless connectivity. It will recognize multi-touch gestures (more gestures than on the iPhone and iPod Touch). Maybe it has a webcam, maybe not. And, it's probably called the iSlate and won't be available until March or April.


What might alternative and citizen journalists do with it?


As my iPhone programmer friend Mark Pavlidis has pointed out to me, the iPhone is all about access to the Web. He thinks the iSlate 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 on-trick-pony e-readers like the Kindle, the Nook and the Sony Reader. The company wants those devices to look like Selectrics next to the iSlate. It's fairly certain the iSlate, if it exists, will be a kickass e-reader. Apple will probably create its own e-book 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 iSlate. 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, 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. I think Apple will create a new piece of software in the iWork suite that will allow ordinary folks to create engaging tablet content.


And, a geo-aware, mobile tablet computer will allow us to deliver data and stories to users depending on where they are. That suggests we should be considered map/geography based interfaces over traditional page layouts. And, be considering infographics much more often as a way of conveying complex civic data.


That is, if there is an Apple tablet. I think there will be. The world needs a unicorn now and then.


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