The Next Apple Notebook: Newton, Tablet, UMPC, Sub, or…?

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There is so much speculation about what form the next Apple “notebook” will take it makes for interesting reading. I think predicting Apple products (beyond product refreshes) is an effort in futility, so these aren’t predictions, they’re just my thoughts on the various forms being discussed and prognosticated.

Newton-like, Tablet, or UMPC

368px-apple_newton.jpgThe idea of a Newton-like product has been mentioned before (there’s a Roughly Drafted article on the subject worth reading). And rumors are flying about a UMPC (though if this video on UMPCommunity is to be believed, then Apple’s already released a UMPC called the iPhone). There are also plenty of rumors about a tablet PC.

The RD article postulates an “iPod Slate” at perhaps $600 with a screen maybe twice the size of the iPhone/iPod Touch. It also suggests that, unlike the iPod Touch, it could be available with a service plan that provides data access (like the iPhone) so that it could be used everywhere, not just when WiFi is available. This would be necessary since clearly the “slate” device would be meant to be useable at all times, not just within WiFi range.

The “iPod Slate” (God I hope they don’t use that name) makes more sense than a tablet Mac, in my opinion; I do not believe we’ll see the latter soon. A tablet requires applications the average Joe wants, not just highly vertical medical or other applications that typically drive the relatively small tablet sales now.

We’re not at the point of a tablet replacing normal PC functions, so any tablet still should have a keyboard and all the other trappings of a PC. This typically means a hinge to pivot the screen between tablet and PC mode. In short, adding the tablet capability to a PC generally adds weight, expense, and increased processing needs, assuming all else is equal. And to what purpose for the average user? Where’s the application(s) driving its usefulness?

images.jpgI believe that, among other things, the iPhone allows Apple to dip its toes into the tablet application waters. Perhaps the “iSlate” could take that a step further. However, I believe the big step for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and any similar products from Apple comes with the release of the SDK in February. Between the third-party development community, and Apple’s own internal efforts (which I believe are ongoing), useful applications for the average consumer should be coming.

I’m not just talking about new apps that lend themselves to a touch device, bur also the day to day apps we all know and use. Email is a great example. I use it on the iPhone daily, but I couldn’t use it there extensively. I believe Apple needs to make those kinds of day to day apps practical for use on a touch device before any tablet PC has a shot at general success outside of a small niche, and I don’t think Apple wants to reside in niches.

Perhaps a year from now, with the SDK well-established and a healthy development community behind it, we’ll have enough practical uses that an Apple tablet PC rumor might make sense for Macworld 2009, but not 2008. The “Slate” concept might fly — and it would provide even more of a “test bed” for tablet apps — so if Apple announced one in January I wouldn’t be shocked (and I may even want one!). But I won’t be shocked if they don’t either.

Sub Notebook

In my opinion the whole point of a sub notebook is to be a small but feature-rich PC. My idea of a sub notebook, which is what we’ve seen in the past, is that it has:

  • a reasonable screen size,
  • a keyboard,
  • some ports,
  • decent battery life,
  • run a desktop OS,
  • use a “standard” processor,
  • and have adequate storage and memory capability.

Based on this, the trick is clearly to compromise on the size of the screen, number of ports, etc. so that you have a “full” notebook that’s noticeably smaller than the average machine. Yet the compromise is such that if you’re using it for PC work all day you shouldn’t be banging your head against the wall at its limitations. This is a pretty fine line to walk.

In the past, typical compromises have been along these lines:

  • small screen (anywhere from 7″ to 12″),
  • no floppy drive (in the old days) or no CD drive (today),
  • smaller, lighter battery,
  • fewer ports (1 or 2 USB, no PC card slot),
  • maybe no speaker,
  • slightly smaller keyboard,
  • smaller palm rest,
  • etc.

To this list you could now add a flash disk drive. This would save space and power, but add to the cost. With the right balance, you can create something useful smaller than a sheet of paper, pretty thin, and around 3+ pounds. Problem is you typically need to haul a cable and CD drive with you if you think you’ll need it, which I don’t like. You may also need a cable and some other peripheral to add devices if the ports were too limited.

Such a notebook is not 100% full-featured unless you drag cables and devices along, which is why I believe they’re still not that popular beyond a niche. It’s a larger niche than tablet PCs, but a lot of average users see the extra expense for the device, and the hassle of packing a cable and other devices they might need, simply not worth it. I’m one of those users.

For the reasons above, and my belief that Apple does not want to reside in small niches, I question whether they’ll release a sub notebook. Part of the reason for this may also be because they’ve already done it.

duoinsert.jpgThey released the Duos, and had a run with them for a while. However, these were more a desktop system whose “guts” could be removed. I’m not sure such a complete system would sell today. It would be relatively expensive, and lots of laptop users don’t want any vestige of a desktop anyway.

macbook-mini-070214-0-gif.jpgThere was also Apple’s PowerBook 2400. It was pretty well-received in Japan, but Apple never released it in the U.S. Even then Apple knew it was a niche market, and given that sub notebooks aren’t exactly tearing up the sales charts today, why would anyone think it’s different now?

So how about something just, you know, smaller?

So if I want to carry it all with me does that mean I don’t care about size? Of course I do. It’s just that I think laptop size still presupposes the laptop is fully functional. I just don’t see cutting many features to get small as a reasonable compromise. What I want is a full-featured notebook that’s simply smaller than most. Who better than Apple to design it?

Look at the size of their notebooks now compared to the competition. Nobody can make a trim notebook without compromise like Apple does. They’ve been doing it for years. And Apple did this simply as a by-product of a larger overall design goal (a consumer or Pro notebook).

lap.jpgBut what if they designed a “hybrid” consumer/Pro laptop with a goal of also being small? Well, they did that once. It was the PowerBook G4 12″, and it still has supporters. This was a small notebook, but full-featured. Smaller than the iBook at the time in every dimension, yet with full G4 power and all the built-in I/O you could reasonably expect. No cables or other devices to carry with you.

When the latest MacBooks came out, Apple announced they replaced both the iBooks and the 12″ G4. While the MacBooks are not large, and were thinner than the 12” G4, they were larger to hold, or put in a backpack, or use on an airline tray. For some people, while thickness is important it’s not as precious as length and depth, so the MacBook has always felt bigger then the 12″.

Could Apple resurrect a 12″ machine? I like 12″ because anything smaller is too much of a compromise in this day and age. There’s no way I wouldn’t feel trapped by a 10″ screen or smaller on a laptop. Ideally, Apple could make a 12″ widescreen and put 1280 x 800 resolution on it. Could they use the existing 13.3″ instead? Sure, but subs are supposed to be noticeably smaller notebooks. Starting with such a screen limits how small one can make its width and depth. Look at the current MacBook and imagine shrinking the edges so they hug the screen/keyboard. That’s only going to shave maybe an inch. Not bad, but not necessarily sub notebook territory.

I have no idea what Apple will introduce at Macworld. Maybe they’ll just redesign both laptop lines. I’m sure they’ll be a little smaller and, since Apple is ahead of the competition in this regard, that may be enough.

Personally, I’d like to see a modern-day 12″ G4 because I think it will fill the needs of many looking for a sub (though it won’t be quite as small or light) and yet also be the laptop of choice for some who want a full-featured machine. The 12” machine will always be seen as a compromise (and it is), so I think most will still gravitate to either a MacBook (larger, possibly less powerful graphics, but less expensive), or the Pro (bigger screens, more ports, though more expensive). In other words, the same choices people had when the 12″ G4 existed. Still, I think it would fill a much larger niche than any sub notebook right now.

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3 thoughts on “The Next Apple Notebook: Newton, Tablet, UMPC, Sub, or…?

  1. Agreed that their existing touch devices are the building blocks, but it’s not a difficult problem to solve the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Apple would obviously have their own apps ready to have take advantage of the new screen along with a demo app or two, and they could easily give out early units to the 3rd party developers like Adobe or the OmniGroup so that there’s a library of apps ready at launch.

    Since the iPhone and iPod touch are using the same development environment as Mac OS X with the same developer tools, Apple could easily reuse the code they put into the iPhone to make it happen. All that would remain would be to build a proper user interface that takes direct advantage of the new touch capabilities and the size of the screen.

    Sebastian

  2. I don’t disagree, but it’s a “chicken and egg” thing. Developers may flock to the Apple laptop with a “tablet mode” UI, but it will take time for results, and who buys the machine in the meantime?

    This is where Apple’s smaller touch devices and the SDK are so important. They allow Apple to develop (and perfect) that UI on devices small and useful enough that people will buy them right now. They’ll also allow Apple and third parties to develop the kind of apps that make them more useful, and I believe many of those apps will transfer directly to a full-size laptop (or touch PC, or tablet, or whatever they want to call it).

    This is something new. There’s never been a “test bed” for touch apps in devices that can sell in quantity and make a manufacturer money. In my opinion Apple’s touch devices aren’t just successes in their own right, but also the building blocks for applications that will allow Apple to introduce a full-size touch computer that won’t have to be a niche machine.

  3. The reason for tablet form factors not being very popular is that they either 1) don’t have a proper user interface (Windows Tablet Edition is just Windows with a Stylus, still the same menus and layout) or 2) they don’t have the proper applications making use of them.

    If Apple made their entire line of notebooks convertible, added a UI specifically for “Tablet mode” that was still consistent with Aqua but worked in a way that makes more sense on a touch screen than with a mouse, developers would be racing to build applications and modify existing apps to take full advantage of that screen, in addition, niches can’t be ignored.

    If you build a computer that can fill almost every niche in the world that sells about as well as the Macbook sells to consumers, then I call that a profitable venture. There are many “niches” that can take advantage of this one form factor design, and right now Apple’s laptops are especially popular with students, and students would be the best target for this form factor, so where’s the problem? If Apple can sell more computers by improving them instead of just adding a new case every once in a few years and regular chip updates every 6-9 months, then why the hell not?

    Sebastian

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