The Apple tablet computer to be announced next week -- if it's real -- will almost certainly be a sexy beast. But will it hold any practical appeal for business users?Virtual gallons of electronic ink have been spilled in speculation over what an Apple tablet might look like, feel like, and do. Most of the verbiage has probably come from Apple fanboys who can't wait to praise whatever it is. But at the same time, others, less fond of Apple and Macs, are sharpening their knives in anticipation of an epic fail.
Yesterday, for example, Bill Snyder in PC World's BizFeed said a small business would be "wasting money and brain cells" on a iSlate because "itï¿¼s going to be too expensive, it does things you donï¿¼t need to do, and it will add a messy layer of complication to your company's computing infrastructure."
First, I'm not sure how Bill knows what the price of the iSlate will be. He mentions "$1,000 or so," which has indeed been mentioned in some speculation and which, I agree, would be kind of steep. But most speculation has centered around a price point of $600-800, somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook Pro. Picking the highest rumored price and labeling the tablet too expensive on that basis is stacking the deck.
As for what it does, Bill seems to be comparing it to a desktop computer, saying, for example, that "Itï¿¼s quite likely that the iSlate will use an on-screen keyboard. Thatï¿¼s fine for a quick text message or a short e-mail, but what a crummy way to do any real data entry." Yes, it is. I agree that if Apple positions the tablet as a tool for high-volume data entry, they're making a mistake.
Apple will not position the tablet as a tool for data entry.
He goes on to say that "Itï¿¼s no accident that business people who rely on a phone for heavy email access still tend to use a Blackberry or other smartphone with a physical keyboard." Could that change, though? Bill's been writing about technology as long as I have, and I doubt that either of us would have predicted how comfortable people would get with entering text using eight keys on a phone, pressing keys multiple times to get one letter. I watch my teenage son switch effortlessly from texting on his phone to IMing on his iPod Touch, and I'm not sure the next generation of businesspeople is going to share Bill's and my need for a physical QWERTY keyboard. And for those of us who do still have that need, one of the latest rumors is that the iSlate will have a dock to support peripherals -- an idea I've brought up before -- and/or will support a BlueTooth keyboard.
So if you're not going to do data entry or heavy text editing on the iSlate, what will it be good for? In my opinion, there are at least three business uses for which an iSlate would be superior to the current choices for a business computer:
1. Video conferencing. If the tablet has a front-facing camera, as a French telco executive seemed to confirm recently, it'll be a much better teleconferencing tool than a laptop. When you're carrying on a conversation with someone on screen, a laptop's attached keyboard is just a clunky dead weight that makes it hard to position the camera and display for best effect. Holding a tablet in front of you like a book would be a much more natural-feeling approach.
2. E-reader. New e-book readers are being announced every day, and some of them are making a stab at integrating a Web browser. Tablet-format devices make better e-readers than laptops or netbooks anyway, and a 10-inch tablet that could both display books and magazines and access the Internet would be a compelling advance in the category.
3. Presentation tool. How many times have you leaned over a conference table, trying to see a presentation or sales pitch on a laptop screen? Or slid the laptop around the table so everyone could see it? Now contrast that experience with watching someone holding up a tablet and using the touch screen to step through slides, zoom in and out as appropriate, play a little video...
There's more I don't have space to go into, such as the report that Apple is working on a touchscreen-enabled version of iWork, its office application suite. Or the fact that handwriting recognition has long been built into OS X but hasn't been exploited by many vendors -- with the notable exception of Axiotron, a tablet Mac manufacturer. Or the unlikely ascendancy of netbooks, another device it would have been hard to make a business case for two years ago.
Apple has an unparalleled ability to create a new market or expand one to its full potential. I'm not willing to bet against their ability to do it again.