We've already seen the Apple "iTablet"...you're holding it in your hand right now.
Let's all hope the rumors of Apple's tablet computer are true or else there will be a lot of tech writers who will have to eat their lunch. The much rumored and speculated "iTablet" may make a debut sometime early next year, possibly in January. If such a device exists it will be one product launch that may out do all the others in recent memory, including the iPhone. Let's hope Apple does not disappoint.
Along with the written speculation, there have been a number of artist mockups too about what the device will look like. These are are pretty much the same, a slab of technology with about a 10" touch screen. What you don't see in these drawings is the software and interface interaction. Sure, it will be some flavor of OS X obviously, but it will be how we interact and use the thing that will capture the imagination more than just an artists rendition of the physical device.
As the rumors swirl, its easy to try and imagine what the device would be like to use and I believe there are plenty of hints already out there in the form of your iphone and iPod Touch. Some may ask, just what will make the tablet better than an iPhone and even a 13" MacBook or MacBook Pro? Why would one want one and what is the big deal anyway? Well, ask yourself that question too about the iPhone when it came out. We have had cell phones a long time and the new models rolling out never really got us all excited. I mean it was just another phone. But Apple showed us something quite different. I suspect they may do it again with the tablet. "See, now this is a TABLET!" is what the thing may scream. Its not just another netbook or laptop...its a new way of interacting with not only hardware, but software and all the media of today's digital diet.
I think the big deal is going to be in the touch screen no doubt. Currently, there are no small form factor devices that have given users an adequate experience. Much as I love the iPhone, the screen does get a little small at times, but it is ALWAYS there. Pull it out of your pocket and bam, there is the web in your hand and 85,000 other things you can do with it too. No, you are not going to put an Apple tablet in your pocket, but slip it into a small case and it can easily disappear in a backpack or purse without the bulk of even a Netbook. Hopefully Apple will find the sweet spot for screen size. All bets are it will be in the 10" range. Such a device could give the Microsoft Surface a run for its money in the portable space.
And while the iPhone is a great media consumption device, it does have its limits. Its not a great tool for editing media unless you like working on very small screens. And its not great a producing media, although its getting better with video in the 3GS and a better still camera. Typing out more than short emails is not a fun experience. Ditto for taking notes or any sort of long form writing. Also, editing video can be done on the 3GS but its not great at all. Same for photos and audio. Watching video is nice, but I don't want to watch Lawrence of Arabia on it.
What I think will be so great about a tablet will be the opening up of the mobile world to larger touch screen devices and what this will mean for computing in general. In addition, I can see the value of a touch screen computer on your desktop. While Apple's new Magic Mouse is quite cool and will pave the way for more touch versatile input devices it could be something like a remixed tablet that begins moving us further down this road. Our current input devices still work pretty well, especially the keyboard on desktop systems, but we need to move on to other paradigms in the next few years. However, its when you get a larger touch screen on a mobile device mobile that things get interesting, as the iPhone showed us in small, elegant ways. I personally like how easy it is to flip through home screens, open web pages, and even closing and launching apps is effortless (lets not talk about typing shall we), not to mention all the creative ways people have come up using the screen through the Apps. Unleash a larger screen space on developers and who knows what we will be flicking with our fingers. Its pretty easy to make the leap into what a slightly larger screen with the same touch capabilities as the iPhone will be like...it will be the same, only better.
I can see an almost full sized virtual keyboard, some interesting touch screen multimedia editing capabilities and hopefully some nice integration with things like HDMI TVs and your desktop computer. Borrowing a page from Wacom's Cintinq line, it would be cool too see the device as a small secondary screen for your laptop or desktop. An integrated iSight and possibly down the road, a LCD projector would be nice too. Essentially, the tablet would become a sort of sketchpad of the 21st century allowing one to both consume and produce media with ease. One intriguing possibility would be that the device can replace your keyboard on your desktop offering you a completely new way to interact with your desktop system (or home entertainment system) while giving you the freedom of mobility. This thing will change its use simply by what device you are using it with. This may be the device that starts to really pull us away from the mouse and keyboard. Look at the small wireless keyboard Apple sells for its desktops and Mac Mini and imagine that form factor as a touch screen device paired with your desktop. Now that would be interesting (and more comfortable). Imagine having several people with tablets being able to interact with each other's desktops or a single larger display. It could be a very interesting collaborative device. And while its not doing anything it can be the ultimate portable digital picture frame on your desk, but I digress...
And of course, with all the ebook excitement, such a tablet would take the digital book and magazine experience to a new level making the Kindle and its E-Ink brethren look positively 19th century. One notable area absent from the slew of ereaders hitting the streets is of course color and screen resolution. This leaves glossy coffee table photo books out in the digital cold. A device like what Apple may bring to fruition could fit a niche for this content giving viewers rich color images (and hopefully HD video) paired with a super high resolution touch screen (iPhone screens have twice the resolution dpi of your desktop displays). Low resolution displays (and projectors) have long been the bane of presenters who can fit more on one piece of paper than on one computer screen (thank you Edward Tufte for that insight). Comic books too are perhaps an area that an Apple tablet could breathe new digital life into. And then there would be the gaming and all the cool potential of field based computing that could be done on a device with multiple sensors, and a high res color screen. Mobile mapping may never have looked so good...
So while we wait with baited breath for a new device from Apple that may (or may not) actually exist, ponder the possibilities of what it may offer by looking and thinking closely at its little brother the iPhone. Perhaps Apple has used it as the ultimate test bed for "the next big(ger) thing." Only time will tell....and that time is coming soon.