Mac Musings

3G Wireless: The Next iPod touch and the Apple iSlate

Daniel Knight - 2010.01.12 -

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Ever since the return of Steve Jobs, when Apple killed off unprofitable and unnecessary products (Apple branded printers and the Newton among them), Apple has had a great track record with new products.

The first of these, the iMac, was an undisputed hit, taking the top sales spot ahead of any Windows model several times. The Power Mac line eliminated traditional beige desktop design for a bold new tower-only design in 1999, a tradition still going strong with the Mac Pro. The iBook was a fresh new consumer notebook design that influenced the consumer MacBook. And in 2001, the 15" Titanium PowerBook introduced a form factor not much different from today's 15" MacBook Pro.

Apple also expanded its business beyond computers. The iPod went on to become the most popular "MP3 player" on the market, and the iPhone changed the face of smart phones forever.

Power Macintosh G4 CubeOn the Macintosh side, only the Cube was a sales failure, and Apple TV is the only consumer product Apple introduced since Jobs' return that wasn't a runaway success (it continues to receive software upgrades and continues to fall short of offering the DVR feature the market clamors for).

Rumor has it that Apple will introduce a tablet computer Real Soon Now. We may see a new product line that uses the same OS as the iPhone and iPod touch, or we may see a model that uses full-fledged Mac OS X, much as the Modbook already does.

It's widely expected that this will be a 10" device, in many ways an iPod touch on steroids. Apple has already indicated to some developers that their iPhone/iPod touch apps should be ready to run with a larger display.

Here's what I think we're going to see.

Going 3G

Apple will take the iPod touch, add 3G support, graft in the same camera found on the iPhone, and market it as the iPod touch 3G - or simply the iPod 3G. This will essentially be an iPhone without the mobile phone feature. And it will sell like hot cakes.

No CDMA iPhone

Designing an iPhone for Verizon's CDMA network, which many pundits anticipate, doesn't make sense. CDMA is a dead-end technology. But what if Apple made the iPod 3G exclusive to the Apple Store and Verizon? Verizon would sell a lot of data plans on it's 3G network (which more widely deployed than AT&T's, although not as fast) without having to change its network infrastructure to support iPhone features, such as visual voice mail.

I'm pretty confident Apple's slate will include 3G support and that Verizon will be an exclusive partner in the US. Take an iPod 3G, add a webcam and a 10" display, and you've got a slate with a zillion or so apps available. And maybe - just maybe - we'll see an intermediate 7" slate/ebook reader as well.

All of these will work on G3 networks, and none of them will be phones. Let's hope that Apple and Verizon can help move the industry away from subsidized hardware with two-year contracts - along with inflated monthly bills to cover the subsidy. It's just a dream, but seeing the success of Metro PCS and others with their unlimited talk/text/Web service plans ($40 to $45 per month for regular phones, $50 for smartphones, and $100 for a 4-line family plan, but no contracts or no free phones), maybe it's time for the US to catch up with the rest of the world.

iPhone OS Not for Everyone

As nice as the iPhone OS is, it's not for everyone. Some people need real apps and true multitasking. For such users, I envision Apple offering a 10" slate that runs Mac OS X 10.6 and standard Mac apps. It may even include an iPhone OS emulator, which would make it remarkably flexible.

Slate + Keyboard = iMac

Take an iPhone, iPod touch, Modbook, or rumored Apple slate, add a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you've got a very small iMac. And if there's anything Apple knows, it's the market for all-in-one computers. The Lisa, the early Macs, and the iMacs all use this concept: The CPU, memory, storage, display, and ports are all in one unit that interacts with an external keyboard and mouse.

That's something the Tablet PC world missed out on. They spent so much time devising a machine without a keyboard or a convertible tablet notebook that made the keyboard inaccessible in tablet mode that they missed the obvious: A tablet computer plus a mouse and keyboard is a very portable desktop computer.

Looking back, Apple promoted the original Macintosh as a very portable desktop computer and even had a bag to hold everything so you could tote it between home and work and school. Adding USB and Bluetooth mouse and keyboard support to the iPhone OS would do wonders to open the market even further.

Apple may have other things in mind, like a keyboard/trackpad docking station, or just a keyboard/trackpad designed to work with the iPhone, iPod touch, iSlate, and iMacs.

It's elegant. And even though it comes full circle to the original Macintosh design, it's also innovative to give iPhone OS devices real keyboards.

This turns the Tablet PC paradigm on its head. Instead of a machine designed primarily for slate mode, we'd be looking at machines designed to work as both a desktop computer and as a slate. A version that runs Mac OS X would essentially become an iMac to go - the very phrase Apple used when it introduced the iBook over a decade ago.

Reality Check

Apple needs to move carefully here, because it doesn't want to cut into iPhone, iMac, or MacBook sales - not too much, at least. At the same time, it wants to launch a new market with a bang.

Just as Apple has resisted offering a modular desktop Mac that fits between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro in price and features, it may be resistant offering a slate too close in size to the Newton. I'm not going to speculate about technical specifications, features, or price. We're dealing with Apple, which plays things close to the vest and likes to surprise us.

I can say that it's going to be powerful enough for users and profitable enough for Apple. The 10" slate is not going to be cheap; Apple already has the iPod touch at the low end.

Apple is probably not going to confuse the market by introducing 7" and 10" slates or iPhone OS and Mac OS X slates at the same time. I figure the first iSlate will be an iPhone OS machine. Down the road, it could be joined by smaller or larger slates, but at the beginning an iPod 3G and a 10" iSlate should be sufficient.

I'm always interested in products Apple doesn't make and may never make - a midrange desktop with multiple drive bays and expansion slots, a larger iPod touch in the 5" to 8" range, an Apple TV that includes DVR functionality - but I believe that the hardware Apple will introduce later this month will be a runaway success.

Like the iMac. Like the iBook. Like the iPod. Like the iPhone.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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