What I Think I Know About the Apple Tablet

I’m a writer for a blog that focuses on Apple (s aapl) and its products, including Macs, iPods and iPhones. So I have a duty and an obligation to write one or more posts about the highly anticipated, much discussed, and completely unknown Apple Tablet device expected to be announced on January 27. But based on the last few years, I have a bit of a unique perspective on the tablet, why Apple might create one, and why you might want to buy one if it does.

Almost four years ago — about 9-10 months before the iPhone was first announced in January 2007 — I decided to give up a rather successful user experience consulting practice to follow a dream. I created a company to build and monetize a product of my own making, rather than continue to provide services to others. After some extensive research, a small team I had assembled helped me develop the product concept and strategy. Essentially, we were going to create what we called the “iTunes of apps,” an online ecosystem of applications that you could easily discover and download to all your digital devices. We determined we needed to build a tablet computer as proof of concept and get hardware manufacturers and content companies on board.

We envisioned a product that looked something like the Notion Ink reported recently, and focused on creating “the first room-to-room mobile Internet device” on the market. Our plan was to focus on lifestyle applications that made daily life easier, including video recipes, home/baby/security monitoring, instructional videos for DIY home improvement projects, and a wide array of similar content. The miBook has since been launched with similar ambitions, but focuses exclusively on “how to” type of content, rather than a full ecosystem of diverse apps serving many purposes. Litl is giving something similar a whirl, but it has a keyboard and limited capability touchscreen so it can’t really be called a tablet. HP’s DreamScreen is a digital picture frame that, while hardwired, is also attempting to address similar needs. Alas, we weren’t able to raise the significant capital required to launch such an animal, in part because no one on our team had a hardware background. We’ve since moved on to creating our own software and advising others in the user experience and mobile space.

For us, the effort was all about the user experience. At the time — and even since with the iPhone, full-screen Blackberries, and Android phones — there was a gap in the user experience between the Nokia N series and similar mobile devices, and full-fledged computers. Something incredibly fun and easy to use, with a screen big enough to be viewed across the room (for watching video recipes, sharing photos with the family, or just watching video content of any type). Of course, the iPhone and iPod touch have addressed much of this need, except the bigger screen. Viewing distance and sharing aren’t the only limitations of the mobile screen for content perhaps best consumed in a tablet style device. iPhone video, for example, takes over the screen, eliminating ability to view related text content or even publish opinions about the content you’re viewing to your social networks. There’s not really a good digital equivalent of reading magazines with imaginative typography, color spreads, and other graphic elements. And I have yet to see a compelling digital textbook that not only includes the original text, but also companion videos and graphics, news feeds on related topics, and updates from and conversation with the author.

That’s the sum total of what I know about the Apple Tablet. That there is a market for one, that many companies are trying hard to tap the market, and that there is a lot of content which would best be showcased on such a device. But what I don’t know is likely far more interesting. So without any inside knowledge, here is my not-so-idle speculation about what it might or could include:

  • Keyboard Dock: Perhaps the best use of a tablet would be a replacement for the consumer-oriented, entry-level white MacBook. But to successfully replace a laptop, the Apple tablet might just need a physical keyboard. What better way to integrate one than to simply make it a recharging dock?
  • Third OS: My sense is there will be a new operating system for the tablet that bridges the gap between the small size, single-function nature of the iPhone OS and the larger platform, keyboard-driven, multitasking capabilities of Snow Leopard. It might be nice if the OS automatically sensed that the tablet was in the dock, and morphed slightly for keyboard optimized input.
  • Publication Wrapper: A new multimedia format will join iTunes LP, allowing publishers of primarily text-based content to release multimedia versions of their book, magazine, or newspaper content that dramatically changes how we consume a lot of content in the home.
  • Apple TV & iTunes Integration: The new tablet will basically become the wireless display to the Apple TV, and Apple will offer a ground-up rethinking about how content is shared among devices on a local network.
  • Front-mounted Web Cam: Crowding around a MacBook to have a video chat with the grandparents isn’t a terrible experience, but it isn’t ideal. A touch-based iChat application would be far more compelling and fun.
  • Home Controls: Expect Apple to position the tablet, an updated Apple TV, new and easier sharing of content among devices, apps like Remote, and integration with other systems as a way to make home controls a mass market.

Personally, I enjoy all the rumors and speculation that some have grown weary of. I’m hoping that none of us are completely right, and that Apple will surprise us all with something that we never realized we couldn’t do without.