The Apple tablet: Marvel or menace?

So, like everyone even vaguely in the tech industry, I am required by law to be enamored with Twitter. Are you following my feed @jfruh? Well, why not? Because it could be your key to a guest spot in this blog! I tweeted about my blog post last week on my reservations about the supposedly upcoming Apple tablet, somewhat cheekily referring to the still-theoretical device as terrible and pointless. This got blowback from one of my followers, @chictech, who, it turned out, was Laptop Magazine News Editor K.T. Bradford. After some good-natured 140-character back-and-forth, we ended up deciding to a point-counterpoint on our blogs -- so here we are! I'm letting her go first, since she's my guest here.

When tweeting on the iPad's limitations last week, Josh noted the lack of physical keyboard and predicted that all users would be able to do is surf the web, read email and watch or listen to media. For $600, a price we both agree is in the likely ballpark, he didn't see much point to the thing. And in his IT World post he further stated that the iPad fell into the same category as nettops and i-computers and will fail accordingly.

I disagree that the iPad will be as limited as Josh envisions. Extrapolating from what I've seen on the iPhone and iPod Touch, I can see Apple's tablet being an excellent on-the-go machine for students, bloggers, even professionals. Apple's tablet will surely not be more limited at 10 inches than the iPhone. With room for better hardware and more screen real-estate to work with, it will have much more functionality. A touchscreen tablet is only as exciting as its software, true. But Apple has shown what is possible and allowed developers to expand those possibilities with the app store. Imagine the e-reader apps that allow written notes and markups, or the word processor apps that mix paper and electronic editing functions, or the accelerometer games writ large. The key to my excitement is the notion of a tablet with software that lives up to the promises of the hardware.

Apple's tablet will slide easily into the netbook space, though it will find itself at the high end. This isn't a bad thing -- as Josh points out, Apple is comfortable occupying that niche. But beyond just being more expensive, this tablet will take mobile computing to another level. Yes, it will lack an attached keyboard, freeing it up for use on the go. Truly on the go -- on the bus or subway, while walking or standing in line.

If the iPad was going to be a web-only device similar to the CrunchPad, I would say that, yes, for $600 that's not terribly exciting, even with the touchscreen capability. But I don't see Apple creating such a limited machine. Even if the company doesn't deign to call it so, it will be a netbook without a keyboard. And even then, that doesn't mean it can't acquire one.

When the first rumors of this device started floating around just before the last MacWorld I very quickly started imagining the accessories that would inevitably follow. You can't go two feet in an electronics store these days without tripping over iPod docks, speakers, alarm clocks, and any number of other gleaming white or glossy black accessories for the world's favorite media player. How long do you think it will be before the iPad has its own? Unless Apple puts unreasonable limitations on its hardware, the accessory field is wide open.

There are already several companies making foldable keyboards, PDA docks, and the like. And that's all it would take to turn a tablet into a netbook -- a light and foldable dock that sports a few USB ports, audio output or speakers, an attached or wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse. If it wants to be really ambitious it can also include Ethernet and VGA ports. Honestly, I think that a folding keyboard that holds the tablet in landscape mode and maybe a mouse is all most people would want, anyway. That way they can do serious work when they're stationary and work from the on-screen keyboard on the go.

Of course this would cost extra money. But people who don' balk at paying $600 for the iPad are probably willing to pay an extra $50 to $75 for a useful accessory. They pay enough for the useless ones.

I think the Apple tablet will fit in at the high-end of the netbook market -- a market that's incredibly strong and still growing. If they can create a touchscreen experience that delivers something better than consumers have been given before (which will not be hard, as I've noted already), then the iPad will follow the usual models of Apple successes.

And here's my response!

Believe it or not, I used to be pretty excited about the long-rumored iPad/tablet thingie. It's easy to be excited about things that you know only vague details about, and therefore can just project your own thoughts onto them. Back then, I was visualizing something that ran a flavor of the iPhone OS -- this, I thought, would make for relatively processor-unintensive system that could run on an Atom chip or something similarly low-powered (and cheap). I also imagined that it would be a true netbook -- with, crucially, a keyboard that, if not full-sized, was at least large enough to touch-type on.

But all the rumors that have come out in the last few months are pointing towards a true tablet -- the defining feature of which is, at least for me, that it doesn't have a keyboard. This is, I think, a bigger problem than the tablet boosters are admitting. A netbook with a keyboard is a device that you can do actual work on. A tablet without a physical keyboard becomes, in essence, a glorified toy.

"Hey!" you're saying right about now. "My iPhone isn't a toy!" Well, no. It makes phone calls. It sends text messages. And, more importantly, it fits in your pocket. It lets you watch and listen and do some light surfing and emailing (emphasis on the light -- when's the last time you sent an email of any length from your iPhone?) from wherever you happen to be.

The theoretical tablet loses that go-anywhere advantage. Yes, it would be significantly lighter than your laptop, easy to drop into a purse or backpack. But how many scenarios can you envision where you'd be on the go and want both your phone (and anyone one gadget-mad enough to buy this thing is going to have a phone, probably a pricey one) and a tablet, but not a computer you can type on?

K.T. says that an ecosystem of peripherals will pop up, including a keyboard, and maybe she's right. But it seems like the thing would have to be popular to begin with for that to happen -- and if it fails to find traction, peripheral makers will fail to sign on.

Oh, and if rumors are right, the tablet will come with another wireless bill to provide its always-on connectivity, maybe from Verizon. iPhone users (who I'd assume would be among the core gadget geeks interested in the thing) would end up with different bills from different companies.

In short, here's my issue. The tablet will probably do some things very elegantly. It will for certain be nicer to surf the Web or watch movies on a ten-inch tablet than it is on a three-inch phone. But there's plenty that the tablet won't be able to do elegantly, or at all; to do those things, you'll need a phone and a laptop anyway. And once you have a phone and a laptop, it's hard to visualize dropping a $600 or more on a tablet and carrying it around with you, no matter how elegant it is. Even Apple's hard core has its limits.

So who's come out on top in this battle of idle speculation on a product that might ship next month, next year, or never? Chime in on the comments here or over at Laptop, or just hassle us on Twitter.

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