Dreaming of Sugar Plums and iSlates

12/26/2009 - It is a month to the day from the rumored announcement of what I consider to be the most game-changing device yet to come from Apple, Inc. Granted, that is a huge statement, considering the history of this amazing company that has revolutionized the computer industry time and again with its consistent new paradigms for personal and business computing.

It all started with the conviction of Wozniak and Jobs that people would want to own a personal computer that could do much more than flash lights or make silly beeps. The fledgling Apple Computer, Inc. couldn't manufacture enough circuitboards to meet demand, enlisting the aid of family and friends to put together logic boards as fast as they could.

Along came the Apple II, and the goal line was moved even farther back; Apple became the de facto manufacturer of home computers--a device still few of us owned--and owned the market for personal devices.

Okay, we're talking about dramatic technological improvements here and not market saturation, so we'll ignore the sad truth that IBM managed to lock up the business computer market in a fell swoop, aided by Bill Gates' fortuitous licensing of MS-DOS--which doomed business users worldwide to inconsistent interfaces that persist even in Windows 7 (admittedly a fine OS, but still years behind the refinements enjoyed by Mac users). So let's ignore market penetration here and stay focused on Apple's quantum leaps in computing ease.

The Macintosh brought us the mouse and the GUI; we all know how successful that has been, since we all use a GUI of one sort or another, even when it's in Windows.

The LaserWriter brought the world true desktop publishing and changed art departments worldwide forever. Today we take for granted that we can produce documents and images that are a wonder to behold--again, thank Apple for this.

The Newton was *almost* a game-changer, but it was too large, too expensive, and missed the mark. Instead, we had a few years of handheld dominance by the Palm series--but you can bet that Steve Jobs never forgot the misstep, and was planning and plotting his iPhone even then. Personally, I loved my Newtons--especially the last one; the handwriting recognition was excellent, and writing applications for it was a lot of fun.

Along came the iPod, and naysayers laughed it off, saying that the MP3 market would never be dented by an Apple product. They were right--it wasn't dented, it was overwhelmed. We all know how that's worked out, and how the iPod revolution has changed the way music is sold and distributed all over the world. With the refinements in iTunes, Apple has maintained market dominance for more than 8 years, and it appears that this won't change anytime in the forseeable future.

In 2007 we finally got the iPhone, and we all know how it has affected--and legitimized--the smartphone industry. Today the iPhone is the most popular smartphone on the planet, and even with pretenders to the throne like the new Android platform, will no doubt continue to be the leader in smartphone technology. Every time a contender gets close--and the Droid seems to be closer to the iPhone than any other--Apple takes another leap forward and leaves its competitors scratching their heads in amazement and disappointment.

So today, a scant month from what I hope to be the announcement of the iSlate, iTablet, whatever, I sit speculating on the wonders soon to be enjoyed by all of us with this new device. I'm past the point where I wondered if it was a myth or a reality; the clues are too overwhelming to dismiss, to wit: publishers all over the world are starting to show their prototype e-readers, and many have leaked information about approaches from Apple, Inc. about future deals for e-publishing on a forthcoming Apple product. Foreign suppliers are talking about components; reporters have dug up a domain name registration for the name "islate.com," and also a trademark registration for "Magic Slate." The capper was the report that the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco is to be the site of a media event by Apple, Inc., on January 26, 2010--a month away.

What do I expect to see on the iSlate, after reading all the reports that I've read (and I've read dozens of them)? Here's my prediction: The iSlate will be named just that, and will be a 10" device no thicker than the iPhone 3Gs. It will feature a mini-DV port, audio port, a webcam, a microphone, and a 3 or 5-megapixel camera. It will have a single button on it for turning on the device, and probably a rocker switch for volume, just like the iPhone. I expect to see small stereo speakers somewhere on the iSlate as well, although I'm a bit iffy on this one.

The screen will use the rumored articulating frame that will rise from beneath the surface when the keyboard is invoked; keys will have a slight ridge delineating their borders, and the centers of each key will be slightly indented, giving them a distinct feel. There is also talk that the keys will "give" a little when pressed--this would be even better.

This articulating frame will disappear with the virtual keyboard, leaving a shiny touchscreen that is truly multitouch (as opposed to the clunky pseudo-multitouch found on the Droid). We will be able to do complex maneuvers like rotating images, moving objects all over the screen, flipping pages in magazines or newspapers, interacting with magazine photos so that each page in a magazine can essentially become an image gallery (if you haven't checked out Sports Illustrated's prototype, you should CLICK HERE to see it--it's amazing).

Naturally, we'll be able to use the iSlate for video or surfing the web; it will run most if not all current iPhone apps, and ship with its own Safari browser and other basic Apple apps like Mail, iChat, iTunes and iCal. It will feature solid-state memory like the iPhone, and I expect that the first versions of this product will have fairly small internal storage--probably 32 or 64 GB of internal memory. There will be USB ports too, so the iSlate could be used with flash drives or external drives as well.

Battery life will be in the 10-12 hour range; there will be a small bracket for setting the iSlate up for use with a Bluetooth keyboard--like you see in the mockup image in this article.

I expect to see exciting new apps for the iSlate too--one of them I saw in a demo for the iPhone and can’t discuss--that will extend the usefulness of this new device even farther.

The biggest surprises will be these two things: first, the keyboard that rises from the surface to give us true tactile feel. The virtual-keyboard naysayers will be left without an argument once this appears, and I can only hope that this will someday appear on the iPhone as well.

Second, the user interface. I should have mentioned this first, because it is this element that will propel the iSlate far over the horizons of any current tablet-makers, and send them all scrambling to rework their products. Apple will make the user experience so intuitive, so easy, so natural, that using an iSlate will be akin to picking up a magazine. Hmm, I will think, I wonder if I click this if this photo will enlarge? Yep, it does; I wonder if I can bookmark by turning down the corner of this page? Yep, does that. I wonder if… and on and on. My brother, who works for Hewlett-Packard, told me that after buying his daughter a gorgeous new iMac, he was trying it out the other day; he was wondering about how to do something with it, and thought, "I wonder if I can do this to do so-and-so…" and of course, that's exactly what happened.

Another thing that I predict that we will see on the iSlate, and on the iPhone by summer 2010: the ability to use multiple applications at the same time. We have that to a limited extent on the iPhone, but I expect that we'll see this taken to its logical next step on the iSlate.

Did I leave anything out? Probably. When I sat in the keynote at Macworld 2007, and Steve Jobs showed us the iPhone for the first time, I was amazed at how much farther it went to meeting my wishlist than I ever hoped. I fully expect to see the same with the iSlate.

Even more astounding than this tablet will be the doors that it opens for our future computing experiences. I fully expect a day when I will sit at a desk that consists of a single multitouch display at a slight angle, perhaps as large as three or four feet across and a two or more tall, and I will use it for all my work. It will use a tacticle keyboard like the iSlate, will give us the interactive abilities shown in the movie “Minority Report,” and will make my 4 24” LCD monitors obsolete.