Apple’s Tablet: The Story So Far

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With so many rumors about an Apple tablet buzzing around, it’s hard to believe Apple wouldn’t announce one this year. But what do we really know about this thing?

More after the jump…

Apple fans are an expectant bunch, and one thing or another has gotten their hopes up nearly every year since the death of the Newton. But more recent—and especially post-iPhone—tablet rumors have become so intense, varied and inconsistent that it’s hard to come away with a coherent picture of what to expect. Here’s what we’ve got, and what it means.

 

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Patents

Patent applications have kindled more bizarre Apple rumors than I can count, but there has been an undeniable cluster of activity around tablet-oriented tech as of late.

The earliest seeds of the current tablet frenzy can be traced back to 2004, when Apple filed for a European design trademark on a device that looked like “an iBook screen minus the body of the computer.” It was much larger than what people are expecting now, but in some ways the design prefigured the aesthetic of the next few generations of iMac, and even the iPhone.

Skip forward to 2006, when Apple filed for a patent for an onscreen keyboard, gesture recognition and a virtual scroll wheel. Again, some of these technologies would find their way into the iPhone before too long, but the application contained a telling mockup of a tablet-esque product, smaller than the 2004 version, but which fit most of its description.

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A flurry of offhand “tablet” shout-outs in tangentially related patents followed, but none carried much weight. It wasn’t until August of ’08 that something truly momentous passed in front of the weary eyes of a Patent Office employee: A huge, generously illustrated filing describing how OS X could be adapted to touch input. In it were descriptions of iPhone-like interface element magnification, a full-sized multitouch onscreen keyboard, and finally, plenty of drawings of a tablet device being prodded by inexplicably troll-like horror-fingers (shown at left). A hardware patent—kind of like the 2004 tablet patent—surfaced a few months later, outlining a keyboardless device not unlike the one sketched previously.

In a nutshell, even though an Apple touchscreen tablet doesn’t yet exist, your lawyer would probably still advise you against trying to knock one off.

 

Rumors (and Facts)

jesusmock_01Companies file patents for all kind of reasons, and when you’re as big as Apple plenty of them go unused. They only provide context for other juicier rumors—employee leaks, coded statements from company leadership, hardware orders processed through three layers of Taiwanese press—that can really grow legs. Apple tablet rumors have short lifespans—they either come true within a reasonable timeframe or they fizzle out. Point is, right now there’s a glut of them.

The current groundswell of wild speculation harks back to late 2007, when AppleInsider conjured a rumor that Apple was working on a slightly larger version of the iPhone. This was the first time in a while that anyone had talked about such a product, and it was exciting: Jesus mocked up a beautiful version himself, which led to a massively popular Photoshop contest.

In 2008, a loose-lipped German Intel executive let slip that Apple may be working on an Atom-based unit, which he referred to as a “version of the iPhone.” This odd outburst was quickly minimized, but was soon followed by a full-throated alert from MacDailyNews that an OS X-equipped MacBook Touch would drop by October.

custom_1233676934834_medium_2167867785_21c57ec5d9_o-1_01Next came a NYT report in October that a “Macbook Nano or iPhone Slate” device had been discovered in the traffic logs of a major search engine. As was the tendency those days, people honed in on the possibility of a Mac netbook, to which Steve Jobs cryptically replied that Apple would “wait and see” how sales held up, and that in the event that they enter the ultraportable market, they’ve “got some pretty interesting ideas…” Oh good gracious, what could that mean?

This is when things really picked up. TechCrunch stuck their necks out too, saying that they’d talked to “three different sources” close to Apple, all of whom confirmed an iPod Touch-like device. This means—counter to MacDailyNews’ talk of a fully operational tablet computer—that it would run a stripped down mobile OS X like the one in the iPhone.

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Just a few months ago, something resembling hard evidence emerged: The Commercial Times, Dow Jones news wire and Reuters 

all reported that Apple had ordered 9.7″ multitouch panels from Wintek. These would be the displays in a device set for a Q3 release. Shortly after, the WSJ reminded usthat Steve Jobs was still pulling all the strings at Apple, and went out on a limb to say that he was working on something:

People privy to the company’s strategy say Apple is working on new iPhone models and a portable device that is smaller than its current laptop computers but bigger than the iPhone or iPod Touch.

BusinessWeek then put on their rumor-blog hat too, recently corroborated these rumors with sourced rumors of their own, fingering Verizon as a potential carrier for a 3G-enabled “Media Pad”. They were even so bold as to peg the summer of ’09 as a possible release date.

Deja Vu?

Something striking about these rumors is how conceptually similar they are to rumors from 7 or 8 years ago. This is from a2002 eWeek “hunch” post, the last time that Mac tablets seemed “inevitable”, mostly on account of Apple’s rival Microsoft, and its over-hyped promotion of all things tablety:

This pre-release hardware combines a next-generation, low-power Motorola PowerPC chip and formidable screen real estate into a typically impressive Apple industrial design. The hardware is lightweight and slender, and the battery life skunks comparable Tablet PCs…the software is homegrown, pairing Mac OS X with the company’s impressive handwriting-recognition technology

The writer, Matthew Rothenberg, later specified:

[It's a] device that superficially resembles a large iPod with an 8-inch diagonal screen, lacks a keyboard, packs USB and FireWire ports and runs Mac OS X along with a variety of multimedia goodies

A large screen that serves as the primary input device, a minimalist design, a proprietary Apple input system and better-than-average battery life? That describes the theoretical devices of 2009 nearly as well as it does those of 2002. Anyway.

 

The Most Compelling Evidence

Hidden somewhere amidst all the patent-filing and reputation-staking are some legitimately convincing pieces of information:

• Steady allegatons of Apple’s long, storied interest in tablets—buoyed by occasional patent filings—count for something, as does their consistent cynicism about netbooks (the only real alternative to tablets in the ultramobile computing space).
• The late 2008 patent app for a multitouch tablet interface is thorough, practical, timely and contains a plausible (if basic) mockup.
• The Wintek 9.7″ panel order is the closest thing to hard evidence that we’ve got. It’s a good bet that Apple has them, or will soon, and that they’re putting them to use—but not a sure one.
• That the device has no keyboard, is moderately sized, and that it’s media-centric are all ideas shared by those who’ve separately floated sourced tablet rumors (TechCrunch, BusinessWeek, MacNewDaily).

It looks like there’s a good chance a tablet is on its way. Separate rumors point to similar launch dates: Some say Q3, some say June, but they all could be talking about the same date, or at least the same swath of time.

apptabnoWhat to expect as an OS is more difficult to divine from the above speculation, but common sense is instructive: iPhone OS wouldn’t work on a larger device. It’d be more trouble than it’s worth to reconfigure the core interface for a 10″ screen, and all the thousands of third-party apps written with the iPhone’s screen size and shape in mind would becoming all but useless. Barring some kind of app-in-a-window workaround—which doesn’t sound very Apple-like—or an entirely new version of OS X—which doesn’t seem necessary—desktop OS X with a modified shell, as shown in the 2008 interface patents, stands as the most likely candidate. It works pretty well on 9″ netbooks as is, so a 10″ screen with smart multitouch interface would make for a solid user experience.

Another common thread that runs through most of these rumors is the sense that this device would (or will) be a disruptive, industry-altering product, like the iPhone or iPod. But it’s difficult to see exactly how it would be: Far from setting new standards for smartphones or revolutionizing the portable music player industry, an Apple tablet would be treading where many others have before. It will be smaller than older tablet PCs and lack the keyboard, but that’s not worlds different, functionality-wise than MIDs and UMPCs like the OQO. It’d be thinner, wouldn’t have a keyboard and would pack OS X, sure, but it might not be distinguishable enough from existing hardware to really shake things up.

On the other hand, the disruption could come from the way it is introduced. Wireless carriers are eager to expand revenue streams and keep people under contract, and many rumors and abstract executive comments focus around the idea that tablets—not just Apple’s—will be inherently wireless devices, and they will be sold by carriers. That may seem far fetched now, since we’re generally used to buying laptops without a service plan, but it could easily be the next revolution in wireless hardware.

There is plenty we don’t know, and very little we can depend on. In the end, we have a screen size, a likely form-factor, an OS and a probable release window. Past that, the info is all chaff, and your guess as to how this thing will look—or if it will ever come out—is as good as ours. And guess you have—over the past few years everyone and their mom has mocked up an Apple Tablet.

Shouts to [gizmodo]

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