Managing iWhatever Expectations

Managing iWhatever Expectations

Summary: The mythical iSlate, or iTablet, or iWhatever will almost surely not be able to live up to whatever ridiculously high expectations that pundits and Apple fans have set for the device.

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The mythical iSlate, or iTablet, or iWhatever will almost surely not be able to live up to whatever ridiculously high expectations that pundits and Apple fans have set for the device, simply based on real world mobile device usage patterns and available technologies which the device can be realistically built upon.

Welcome back, Tech Broiler readers. It's 2010. We've all recovered from the holidays and our New Years Day hangovers, and some of us have even gotten back from CES and have started reporting about all the wonderful consumer products that are in store this year. But one such wonderful product -- and I might even say mythical product that was notoriously absent from CES was the iSlate, the rumored super-tablet, or JesusPad that Apple is supposed to be launching at a major media event at the end of this month.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

To say that speculation and expectations of the iWhatever MID/Tablet that Apple is going to be releasing are ridiculous isn't an understatement. We are talking about a product, presuming that it actually exists, that the media is expecting will usher in a totally new age of computing, a repeat performance of what the iPod did for digital media players and the iPhone did for smartphones.

Oh sure, there have been tablets before, but none of them ever really took off. Most have been convertible PCs with touchscreens that could do double duty as standard Windows machines but could also function as tablets in a slab-like way. But the price point on these Tablet PCs were way too high, and they were also too heavy to carry around for practical use.

If there is any agreement on the iWhatever by the New Media Weberati, is that it will have a 7 or10 inch color screen, it will have a thin form factor, it will have Wireless connectivity of some sort, and almost certainly NOT be a full blown Macintosh touchscreen computer. Rather, it will have some sort of embedded RISC processor using ARM-based architecture, running on some derivative of iPhone OS optimized for the larger form factor, and it will cost somewhere between $799 and $999.00. I'm betting on the $799.00, because Apple will probably want to sell a whole bunch of accessories for it that will crank the price up even higher.

Why not a full-blown Mac? Because Apple already has a product in an ultralight form factor in the Macbook Air. Because this device will be thin and more of a slate (the Star Trek PADD realized) than a slab or a thick Tablet PC, it will have limited space for primary storage as well as battery, and Apple will want to get as much battery life out of it as much as possible, probably more or equal to what the Macbook Air has.

The problem is that the Macbook Air has the advantage of being able to be plugged in and charged when it is used, and has a completely different usage pattern than a MID-like product. The MacBook Air, which uses a 13" active color LCD and 128GB solid state drive with Wireless-N has an expected battery life of 5 hours in it's most optimal configuration and usage scenario. In more realistic usage scenarios the Air can have as low as 2.5 to 3.5 hours of continuous usage before a charge.

Based on the various rumors and reports about patents and technology that will be employed in the iWhatever, It will be a device with limited battery life that is heavily tethered to the home as a content-on-demand viewer, designed for integration with other Apple products such as Apple TV and the Mac as well as new cloud-based content distribution services. Heavy content viewing and constant use of a Wireless-N connection means serious battery drain. And I think we can be safe assuming that the iWhatever will not use a fuel cell or some other Area 51 technology that will allow it to run an entire day or more on a single charge.

I'd expect that without being plugged in, using an active matrix touchscreen LCD (Apple using an AMOLED for iWhatever would be completely out of the question without breaking the bank with a screen that size) that the device would have between 3 and 4 hours of battery life, and that's being generous. If this is supposed to be more of an entertainment device where users are watching streaming HD videos over Wireless-N or even playback with locally stored MPEG4 files, you're going to see real-world performance go down to 2 or 3 hours between charges, even when using a low-power embedded processor like a Qualcomm Snapdragon or a TI OMAP.

So what are we really talking about here in terms of what this device is probably made of? Let's start with the display. In terms of LCD or AMOLED or even something like a Pixel Qi Transflective, I think it's probably a given that it's an LCD unless Apple has somehow secretly cornered the market on AMOLED production in order to produce lower power screens for a device that is expected to ship in huge quantities, or is one year ahead of Pixel Qi or Kyocera in large scale dual-mode transflective screen production. I seriously doubt it's the latter, but it would be a hell of a coup if it was.

A transflective Dual-Mode display that could double as a traditional screen and e-Ink would certainly impress the hell out of everyone, since that would solve a lot of the complaints people have with existing MIDs and eBook readers -- they either eat up too much power in the case of LCD-based MIDs, or the screens don't refresh fast enough in the case of eBooks like the Kindle or the Nook, so they can't be used for general purpose apps like this theoretical device would. But all indications that I have gotten from various sources in Asia are that mass production of that technology, which indeed would improve battery performance of the iWhatever device is at least if not more than a year away.

How else could Apple get around the battery drain issue with a slim mobile device with such a big screen? Well, Apple did file a patent which allows traditional LCD screens to double as solar panels to allow devices to charge when exposed to sunlight, but since most users of this sort of MID would use the product indoors, it's not likely that the patented technology would make it into this device or even make sense to put it in there due to actual MID usage patterns. More likely, we'd see that sort of thing in the next generation of iPhone, which is more of an outdoorsy product. People tend to walk around outside with their mobiles more than they would a 10 inch display unit.

With 2 to 3 hours of expected battery life, and if the device is going to be mobile -- in other words, this is the kind of thing you want to bring with you in your briefcase or backpack as a Kindle/Netbook replacement, you're going to need to be able to charge it twice a day, or have it plugged in when using it at Starbucks. That's a reality and an unfortunate limitation of current technology with devices of screens that size.

It would seem to me that having the unit plugged into a AC adapter or even a USB charger would be somewhat impractical when it wasn't in use. In fact, in terms of conforming to Apple's style and industrial design ethos, it sounds downright clunky. I'm thinking that Apple has solved this problem with fast magnetic induction, a technology and has been that first shipped with Palm's Pre and available for the iPhone as a 3rd-party accessory. You'd want at least two magnetic induction plates, one for home and one for the office, but you could probably get through the day, as long as you weren't using the unit constantly. I think we can also safely assume that given Apple's design ethos for mobile devices, the iWhatever will NOT have a removable battery either.

So now we have a good idea of display and battery life expectations. I think it's a given that the iWhatever will use an embedded RISC processor that uses the same ARM architecture as the iPhone, rather than an Intel Atom or other x86 chip.

Why? Firstly, because Atom's power consumption in terms of sheer wattage is considerably worse than most ARM chips, and requires more support electronics, whereas something like the OMAP or Snapdragon, which while clocked higher than the iPhone for higher performance applications, are more of Systems-on-a-Chip (SoC) and already have the required integrated electronics for Digital Signal Processing and 3D graphics that a multimedia device needs, at least in the case of the OMAP 34xx.  Apple isn't the only company that would have to work within these limitations -- just about everyone who showed some kind of Android or Linux-based MID or tablet has the same issues to contend with.

Sure, they could go with something like an AMD Geode, which is an x86 SoC, or even Intel's own EP80579 Tolapai, but that would entirely defeat the purpose of allowing the iWhatever to run the existing suite of iPhone/iPod touch applications, which are coded to the ARM architecture. I think it's reasonable to assume that iWhatever will be able to run existing iPhone/iPod Touch applications, in some sort of seamless windowed mode or via some sort of scaling technology similar to what Android uses.

What about on-board storage and networking? Given that the iWhatever will probably be more of a content viewer and more dependent on streaming media than a full system like a Mac, and in order to keep costs down, I'm thinking it will have Wireless-N networking and anywhere between 32GB and 64GB of on-board solid state storage -- with no expansion slots, just like its little siblings, the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Getting beyond the pure electronics, you also have to assume that the purpose of this device is to continue to enable and lock consumers into the Apple ecosystem -- so it will almost certainly be highly optimized for integration with other Apple products.

I expect that it will work in tandem with devices such as the Apple TV to act as a Hi-Def wireless viewer (and maybe even provide a solid reason for most consumers to buy an Apple TV in the first place, since right now I don't see the Apple TV doing anything the Roku doesn't do better) and will be able to seamlessly network with your Mac to act as a large file caching and content serving mechanism, such as for streaming your giant iTunes media collection to the device.

It also wouldn't surprise me if Apple had a whole bunch of new cloud-based services rolled out just for this thing, or the ability to remotely manage or remote execute programs on your Mac through a thin-client protocol. Maybe even act as a remote control unit for your HDTV and Apple TV. Effectively, it makes sense for this thing to be the center for home automation for the Mac and Apple-centric. I'm not expecting great things in terms of being able to integrate particularly well with home Windows networks and non-Apple devices, however.

How close do you think I am in terms of what we can expect from an Apple tablet device? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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33 comments
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  • Good piece

    Nicely done, Jason. A well thought out and sound analysis is a joy to
    read. If I may add to your commentary, you've hit the nail on the head
    when you speak to the Apple ecosystem. Most analysts and certainly
    the geek majority keep focusing on 'features' being the driving force
    behind a product's success when in fact in Apple's case it is less about
    features than that whole iTunes ecosystem.
    The iPhone caught the industry flat footed. I went back and read all of
    the predictions leading up to the introduction of the first iPhone and
    most predicted doom and gloom. After all the iPhone was entering
    what was considered a mature marketplace with WinMo, Blackberry,
    and Palm sitting on huge market shares of unshakeable client loyalty.
    In the iPhone Apple redefined what a smart phone was and made it
    easy enough to use that people who'd never thought of a Blackberry
    (who wants to tick out messages on that tiny keyboard?) suddenly
    found that for a two year contract and a few C notes you could have: 1.
    An iPod 2. A huge photo album (want to see the latest of my
    granddaughter?) 3. A memo pad 4. A voice recorder 5. A complete PDA
    that synced without worry to your puter through iTunes 6. A GPS unit
    and locator 7. A pretty nifty games machine 8. A pocket computer with
    thousands of applications suited for the form and 9. A cell phone.
    If you add up the cost of all of the items the iPhone replaced, not to
    mention the geeky holster and put that into the ease of use ecosystem
    of content that the iTunes store represents and you've got that game
    changer.
    Will the iWhatever be that revolutionary? Probably not. As you point out
    Apple doesn't have an ET connection with scifi technology, but has to
    relay on existing, and knowing Apple, proven technology. And we all
    are acutely aware of the ramifications of plugging a new form into that
    dynamic ecosystem of Apple's. Will there be surprises?
    Here are my predictions:
    1. Your assessment of the hardware is most likely accurate. However, in
    a touch tablet of the size mentioned how long do you think Waccom is
    going to last? Suddenly, you have a drawing tablet and computer in one
    compact form.
    2. Are we forgetting that Apple has a perfectly good and well refined
    handwriting technology already built into OS X? Inkwell has been sitting
    dormant for years. Sure you could use it on a Waccom tablet, but that's
    not what you bought that piece of hardware for. In the iWhatever you
    have the perfect form for onsite note jotting, drawing sketches, etc.
    3. I just got Dragon's Dictation on my iPhone. It is a free bit of software
    attempting to enticing you into buying the computer version which has
    more features. I've used it. It is phenomenal. Now you can, say, go
    from patient to patient and either voice notes or handwrite notes. Very
    versatile.
    5. Apple's ecosystem seems about to expand to include magazines and
    newspapers as well as a very comfortable form for books. Kindle and
    it's ilk are going to look like an original Newton in about two weeks.
    The iTunes store will expand to media beyond any 'tune'. This is a
    good form for such media. I take issue with your comments about it
    being used at home to view movies. It would be a poor substitute for
    that 55 inch LCD flat screen whether Apple TV is involved or not.

    Finally, I think Apple is going to do what it seems to do best these days
    and that is reshape how we think about using the computational power
    so cheap and readily available today. It's not that they push the
    envelope but rather how they change what we use the envelope for.
    dheady
    • So, is this thing going to solve world hunger and bring peace about, too?

      You have it as the solution to everything else . . .

      Everybody join hands and sing!!!

      <i>kumbai-ya, my Lord, Kumbai-ya . . .</i>
      JLHenry
    • agreed.

      Just focusing like this on what the hardware possibilities are and battery life etc. can pretty much tell you what is possible with such a tablet. I kind of expect there will be some cool slick things like no-cord charging and maybe free no-account 3G for content downloads like the Kindle and some other minor wow things on the hardware end, but most of the wow will probably have to be software and content.
      Add it all up and it will probably be a very cool device. The question will be, will it be cool enough to overcome the stampede of Android ARM tablets thats on the horizon, that may be able to equal most or all of what an Apple tablet can do at half or 1/3 the price?
      ArtInvent
  • The ihype will be so big for this product

    that allowances for "minor" details, such as battery life, will be made.
    Mac Hosehead
  • RE: Managing iWhatever Expectations

    for that amount of money the Apple cultists are willing to pay Steve the Guru, you can buy several systems that do the same but won't bear the rotten apple sign.
    Linux Geek
    • Since the product is unannounced

      How exactly do you come to this conclusion? We
      don't know what it will do or how it will do
      it.

      You could be right, but don't forget that
      greater portability is a feature that *some*
      people will pay for. Unless there is a
      mysterious Linux based touch screen slate in
      the offing I don't see it. After all, my Dell
      netbook running the netbook remix of Karmic
      Koala is a very handy and portable device that
      does may things my iPhone won't. OTOH, my
      iPhone is tremendously more portable and does
      things that the Dell doesn't.

      As for "cultists" well, that's really blown out
      of proportion. Yes, there are those who spend
      their money on everything Apple produces. They
      are entitled to do what they want with their
      income and if they have the money then more
      power to them. After 2+ years in Apple Retail
      and 25+ years of Mac use and support I can tell
      you that such people are the exception NOT the
      rule. It is very tiring to here these types of
      low-brow comments over and over again. Yes,
      people will line up. Yes, people will spend
      more than they need to. It's their right and
      why it works you up so much is beyond me.
      use_what_works_4_U
      • Perhaps you missed the name of the poster (child) ...

        Don't let Linux Geek get you fired up. He is a sociopath and a lunatic.

        If it doesn't have Linux on it, it is trash to him.

        You know what they say, "Don't feed the Trolls".
        babyboomer57
    • Thanks for your deep and thought provoking input NOT! - NT

      NT
      raycote
  • Apple has already succeeded

    Their pawns are creating blog posts to advertise their vaporware. This only fans the flames of hype just enough to keep Apple stock, where Steve wants it in a recession.

    Free advertising saves billions and ZDNet profits from the click. Maybe it is a win win... :\
    T1Oracle
    • Perlow: iPawn? (heh)

      Oh this is hilarious. Perlow being referred to as an "Apple Pawn".

      Obviously the person making the comment has never read him. At all.
      Snark Shark
  • The Argument for Apple

    There should be some credit given where it is due. The
    Apple tablet will likely be more than the sum of it's parts.
    These kinds of blogs specialize in dissection. The net
    result is a reductive viewpoint.

    Examples?

    No, the laws of physics will not be flouted, and yet a choice
    to disallow battery removal actually has the effect of
    lengthening battery life. The engineering can be more
    efficient.

    Apple lock-in? Sure, but vertical integration is returning
    stability, security, and accountability in an arena that lacks
    it. Are we going to begrudge a consumer who makes this
    choice?

    The record? The iPhone has revolutionized the handset. It
    has everything to do with software and a managed, and
    integrated platform strategy. Sorry hippies, the future is
    not entirely "open".

    These blogs are pregnant with veiled and not so veiled
    resentment for Apple. Consumer demand for refined and
    managed experiences are winning out over the carnival
    barkers, their bargain bins, and their cheap Chinese prizes.
    It threatens many a stake in tech's psudo marketplaces,
    and challenges the conceits of open architecture.

    Meanwhile, in PR, Google can't get the Android message
    out properly. The conduits for messaging include 6
    "coopetiting" vendors and the tech blogosphere that is still
    owed a living by open architecture. Something tells me
    that message will fail.

    In the feudal marketplace, cultivated during a Microsoft
    monopoly, and sustained by weak-sauce "competition"
    from open source ? no one had to truly compete in
    technology. All they had to do was extrude different
    shapes and colours of plastic and have a logo. Apple has
    opened things up, and yes I did use Apple and "open" in
    the same sentence. They have been one of very few
    companies with their feet firmly in the larger open
    marketplace. They compete directly, they sell directly, and
    require that their competitors(imitators?) have the chops
    and can differentiate(?).

    There is much in play with this device. Possibly the future
    of publishing. It may disappoint. That isn't the point. The
    point is ? what this thing IS, will not be found on it's spec
    sheet.
    norgate
    • I agree that Apple creates an "experience"

      I started out with an Apple IIe and stuck with Macs until I graduated
      from an MBA program in 1997 and realized that to play in corporate
      America I had to be IBM compatible. A year or two ago I decided to
      reenter the Mac waters. I just bought an iMac 27" Quad core and the
      thing is incredible. I still have a PC that I built at home that is almost
      as powerful, but the experience of the tightly integrated hardware and
      software in an artistic package is compelling.
      Yeah, I can do most everything with my PC that I can with the Mac (in
      fact my PC is also my Blu-ray device where my Mac falls down) but it
      is simply a wonderful experience with the iMac.
      I believe that Apple's new device will be supported by content,
      software and partners that will make the whole experience something
      that is more than the sum of the parts. Often the criticism of Macs is
      that a machine that does "virtually" the same thing is much cheaper.
      But virtually is not identically. Even though I can do the same things
      on my PC that I do on my Mac, the experience is completely different.
      And if you think I'm a sap for being willing to pay for that experience,
      then you are welcome to think that. It won't take away from my
      experience. And I expect that the new iWhatever will deliver on the
      experience factor.
      jgpeters
      • People

        This has been my experience also. Apple has treated the user like the
        intelligent part of the computer/user equation. They have assumed
        people have better things to do with their time than play with a heath
        kit. Running these machines should not be complex or clique driven.
        IT must come to understand that there are disciplines other than IT.
        Some of them are even important! Gasp!

        The tech market has been split. For those who focus on the
        computer, this has been a control issue. Maintaining some sense of
        control, however false or symbolic, is primary. For those who focus on
        the role of the computer... to run software, act as a tool, and
        accomplish other things ? traditional computer control gets in the
        way more often than not. That includes both the "emotional" control of
        the legacy mindset, and the physical control of legacy systems.

        The tablet will be a shift for control issues in both senses. When the
        new form responds to human contact... understands gestures and
        motion... we arrive at another inflection. It's symbolic. If it works well,
        It may be seen as a triumph for a machine. But in the "That's one step
        for a man..." sense... it's another opportunity to promote human
        intelligence and the role of people in the man/machine equation.
        norgate
      • You are just a believer

        Nothing beats a religious experience and you get this every time you work on your Mac. We get it. Should you pay more for worshiping at the altar of Jobs? If you want, why not? It is, after all, your money. There is no logical argument as to why the experience of using SL is better than that of using Win7, so it is all theology. Jobs the God!!
        ADRz
    • You did OK until.....

      "carnival barkers, their bargain bins, and their cheap Chinese prizes."

      That is when all credibility was gone and I stopped reading.

      Faking sincerity is difficult for more than a few paragraphs it seems.
      Economister
  • Steve Ballmer said the word "slate" at CES ...

    How can Apple dazzle us now that MS so convincingly claimed the "slate PC" market as their own?
    RationalGuy
    • It goes back to 2001

      Microsoft showed slates running Windows nine years ago and these machines are available from many manufacturers.
      ADRz
      • They got it wrong then ...

        ... and they're still getting it wrong now. I laughed out loud when I saw
        Ballmer demoing the HP slate. There in the lower left corner of the
        screen -- the START button!

        Wow, MS just doesn't get it. The reason why Tablet PCs didn't take off
        then and the MS slates will fail now is that they didn't bother to create
        a touch interface for their touch operating system! They left the
        standard Windows UI, which is passible with a keyboard/mouse, but
        absolutely horrible for touch.

        I suppose they'll wait for Apple to show them how it's done, then
        release their version of the Apple UI in the next service pack.
        RationalGuy
        • And what exactly is so "horrible for touch" about the standard Windows UI?

          I played with a touch based system with Windows 7 on it the other day. It seemed to me that it made perfectly good sense the way it was laid out. Just because it's got the standard start orb in the usual place doesn't make it bad. In fact, it can be argued that it actually makes more sense to leave it where it normally sits.

          It's that old familiar feel - ease of use thing. It simply works.
          Wolfie2K3
  • Jobs said Apple would only enter this market...

    ...when they could come up with a product that would
    innovate in a manner consistent with Apple's general
    strategy (netbooks are inconsistent with that).
    Expectations are indeed high, but I will venture to say that
    when whatever-it-is comes out, it will not be what most
    people expect. There is now a cottage industry of Apple
    prognosticators and while they get some things right, they
    still don't get everything right. I disagree with Jason's
    assertions that expectations are so high that they can't be
    met, because I think the actual product will not be what
    people expected...but in a good way.
    jgpeters