Apple Speculation Spectacular

The Impact of a Possible Tablet Rests on Several Key Factors

Tomorrow morning, life as we know it will change. Or not. It depends on who you ask, really, and everyone seems to have an opinion. The source of the cyber-singularity is, of course, Apple's announcement of -- something. Now, we don't know for sure what will be announced, but at this point if it's not a tablet device of some sort then rivers will run backwards, migrating birds will fall from the sky and the moon will devour the sun, or something like that. For me, the speculation has been interesting, but I have some questions that I doubt will be answered tomorrow, regardless of what Apple decides to announce.

Now, the lack of hard facts hasn't slowed down the prognostication. Popular Mechanics talks about industries that could be changed. The folks at CNET did a roundup of announcement rumors. Speaking of roundups, our corporate cousins at ComputerWorld have a bunch of articles on the potential news, including two that are particularly worthy; Mitch Wagner's take on what he hopes will be in the announcement, and a comprehensive list of what we know we don't know.

Now, here's where my questions come. Let's assume that Apple does release a tablet of some sort, that it's beautifully designed and has functionality that's somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook Pro. I'm even willing to assume (in spite of history) that it will be priced in a way that seems rational to folks who don't live in Cupertino. I really want to know two things: What does the input really look like, and is it a computer?

These two items are quite tightly related, actually. At this point, for most people who use a computer for any real work, a keyboard is a far more efficient way of getting data into the computer than is handwriting. If you're primarily looking at information things are different -- pointers and gestures work just fine. If I want to take notes or create documents, though, handwriting is awfully inefficient. If Apple doesn't include a keyboard and wants the device to be used as a computer, then some sort of very good voice recognition is going to be a must (as will be the capability to link a Bluetooth keyboard). Let's see what they include to get a sense of how they imagine people will use the tablet.

That brings us to the next question -- if it's a tablet, will it be a tablet computer or a big media reader? If the second, then it's going to be a while before people hack at it enough to make it of real interest to the enterprise. If it's seen as a computer, though, then it's almost instantly an enterprise platform, because users will drive it in that direction. Now, we can use all sorts of platforms for enterprise computing -- I recently wrote a review of Ten Business Apps for the iPhone over at InfoWorld -- but data entry will matter for the table. VPN capability, integration with Exchange and other enterprise application systems, authentication possibilities, and even on-device data encryption will be other things to look for in figuring out whether a tablet is a computer. The last thing that will matter? The App Store.

The iPhone is an OK phone, but it has been wildly successful as an application platform. If Apple announces that the tablet will participate in the App Store, then the question is when, rather than if, it will be used in business. Yes, the entry method is hugely important, but we've already seen that application developers can be clever enough to overcome nearly insurmountable device deficiencies with great apps. If those same folks are turned loose on a more capable and feature-rich platform, then this might just be a game-changer -- even if the game is changed in ways that Apple can't image the day before the big announcement.

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