Apple’s Tablet Unlikely to Maximize the Form Factor’s Potential

Computers used to occupy entire floors of buildings. They quickly started to shrink, however, to occupy rooms, then desks and ultimately, laps. The laptop is now the default form factor for computing, with the smartphone occupying the emerging “on the go” niche. But while the laptop replaces the desktop in most cases, the smartphone doesn’t replace the laptop; rather it’s considered an additional device.

The Apple tablet, on the other hand, will replace neither the laptop nor the smartphone; it, too, is destined to be an ancillary form factor for computing devices. That being said, it will succeed where the Kindle will fail: It will be the ultimate media reader. Ironically, however, it’s unlikely to offer the one thing that tablets traditionally offer beyond ordinary devices — the ability to draw on them.

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Unfortunately pen computing has been historically uncool, but it doesn't have to be that way. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

The Kindle — a black-and-white, video-less computer that you can’t read in bed without the light on — was poorly designed because its creators looked to a dying medium (paper) for inspiration. But electronic books, magazines and newspapers need not resemble their paper predecessors. Apple knows this, and as such will undoubtedly deliver a device with a screen resolution and quality never seen before — tablet-optimized content packaged with all the seductiveness of a glossy magazine.

Of course, whatever Apple tries to do, a tablet site will basically be a pretty web site. And by following the iTunes Music Store or App Store model, unlike with music or software, Apple would be taking something already legally available on the web and corralling it into a walled-garden environment under the yet-to-be-proved auspices of value-add.

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Newton, the original Apple tablet. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

In terms of hardware, the tablet might offer something qualitatively superior but it won’t offer much that a laptop doesn’t already. In fact, without a stand, or a keyboard that can be used with two hands while holding it, the tablet could be regarded by some as a willful, ergonomically unfriendly gimmick, one based on the idea that a digital newspaper doesn’t look right with a keyboard. Nonetheless, any sort of minimalist purity would cater to Apple fans.

Such minimalism, however, all but guarantees that Apple’s device won’t offer the ability to draw on it. That’s because drawing on a tablet would require stylus input (or at the very least, use of a regular pen) and the whole ethos of the iPhone-generation Apple interface is geared around using touch.

Touch-based computing isn’t just a feature; it’s a fundamental shift in the way we interact with computing devices in that it allows such interaction to be precise, subtle and direct. It’s why the iPhone version of the Apple OS represents the way forward for all devices, and why it will run on the tablet. But sadly, the inelegant Palm Pilot-like connotations of stylus input make it very unlikely that considerable design effort will be applied to making sure an already beautiful and precious screen doesn’t break when you apply 50 times more pressure on it than you would using a finger (which would be a shame, because precision is exactly what drawing offers over “finger painting”).

So while Apple’s new device will succeed where the Kindle will fail, delivering the most slickly packaged, optimally formatted media content to date, it may fail to take advantage of the one thing a tablet is made for: drawing. That being the case, who knows what sort of untapped potential Jobs & Co. would be leaving on the table?

David Galbraith is designer turned tech entrepreneur, and co-founder of Moreover, Yelp and Curations.