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.
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 Preandavailable 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.