Some tech pundits think keyboard-less tablet-style PCs are fundamentally flawed and that not even Apple can make a successful one. But there's a simple workaround and Apple already sells it.
Recently, my colleague Rafe Needleman wrote a column titled "Why consumers won't buy tablets." The article was a direct reference to the long-standing rumor that Apple may be releasing a slate-style, jumbo iPod Touch this fall. Rafe doesn't really believe Apple would be misguided enough to release a tablet and that if it does put one out in the rumored $700 to $800 price range, "it will die." He also believes that, "This whole category is a nonstarter."
I tend to agree with Rafe on a lot of his points. I think tablets and tweener devices--like Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPCs)--that are too big to put in your pocket, cumbersome to operate, and overpriced, are problematic and have no place in the marketplace.
The reason why Netbooks have been successful is that they're cheap, and their form factor makes sense, especially for those looking to take a basic, lightweight computer out with them on the road--or just out to the patio. It's a pretty simple equation and you'd think that Apple would just follow the Netbook trend and come out with something that didn't break the mold but was sexier, a little zippier, and cost an extra $100-$200 in so-called Apple tax. What I'm talking about is a 10-inch $600-$700 Apple Netbook with a keyboard.
Alas, that probably won't cut it for Apple. Low-end computers just aren't in the company's DNA, so rumor has it we're looking at a $700-$800 tablet, which, to guys like Rafe and me, doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense. But at same time I also have enough faith in Apple to realize that if it's going to come out with such a product, it's probably going change the tablet's paradigm to the point where it suddenly makes abundant sense.
To a degree, this is what Brooke Crothers argued in his piece, "Why an Apple tablet will succeed." It was meant to be a counterpoint to Rafe's article and featured some potential specs for a fantasy tablet of the near future. I appreciate Brooke's point of view as well.
As the rumors and concept images continue to swirl, much of the debate around Apple's rumored device has focused on the touch screen and the prospect of typing on a virtual keyboard, much like one does with the iPhone and iPod Touch, which some users view as mini tablets. However, it's hard to imagine that this would be the best experience for doing serious work, and I know lots of people who still struggle with the iPhone's keyboard (my father owns an iPhone and it's a little bit painful to watch him type on it).
But as Rafe pointed out, there's another possibility. "Of course," he wrote, "you'll probably be able to plug a keyboard into any of these yet-to-be-released tablets...but you'll pay extra for the hardware and it'll mean more gear to keep track of and prop up on your desk."
To some it would seem incongruous for Apple to put out a keyboardless device that would have an optional keyboard (The Newton had one, which is maybe why Steve Jobs hated it). That said, there are a lot of folks who wouldn't mind using a wireless Bluetooth keyboard to connect to their iPhones or iPod Touchs, but Apple has yet to offer the Bluetooth-keyboard profile that would allow you to do it. So why would it allow it with a larger, jumbo iPod Touch?
Because it has to. The only way for an Apple slate-style Netbook to succeed at the price point we're looking at is for it to be a flexible device that can appeal to a wide range of users and usage scenarios. In short, it will be what you want to it to be. (One reader suggests that Apple call it the Omni, which isn't bad).
At home, it will be a media pad you can take to bed with you. On the road, it'll be a Netbook during the day (I'd like to see kickstand on the back) and an e-book reader and video phone at night. At school, students will use it was a digital notepad. In the car, it's a game machine for the kiddies.
Can't you see the Apple ads already?
And one more thing: I'd venture to say that the keyboard (virtual or physical) and stylus won't be the only way to navigate the device or input information. If you've been following what Apple's been doing with voice commands on the Shuffle and iPhone/iPod Touch, it's obviously been experimenting with voice operation as an interface. At some point, you'll not only be able to playback tracks in iTunes (like you can now) with your voice, but you'll be able to open and close applications, browse webpages, dictate email, and do even more.
For now, though, I could make do with an optional keyboard. And it's already here, both in a wired and wireless version. I just hope Apple allows me to use it.