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Brief update: Welcome Slashdot and MacSurfer readers. Coincidentally, Gizmodo is reporting today that Apple plans to release an $800 tablet or netbook in October – based on a translated story out of China. My post below outlines what this product might actually do, what innovations it will have and what some of its challenges are…

Recently, I spent some time reviewing real and rumored technologies to lay out my predictions about a possible Apple Mac Tablet or MacPad. My predictions are mostly just for fun and I am making no bets as to their accuracy.

Product Design and Marketing Challenge

Apple’s greatest challenge with the MacPad is to create a device that is compelling to existing iPhone owners. With the price of an iPhone 3G now at $99 with a 2 year service agreement (likely to be free within a year), nearly all of Apple’s target MacPad customers are or soon will be iPhone owners.

 

Convincing iPhone owners that they also need a MacPad will be critical to the product’s success. In general, Steve Jobs doesn’t like to sell niche or hobby products. He won’t release the MacPad unless it can be a mass market success like the iPod or the iPhone.
Portability, elegance, ergonomics and battery life are also critical design challenges for the Apple MacPad team.
Bits_crunchpadWhat will you do with a MacPad?
The MacPad will roughly have a 10″ diagonal, full color multi-touch display (see Apple orders 10-inch touchscreens for mystery product) and be elegantly thin, like the iPod Touch (more on the hardware specifications below). It will likely be sold initially with a 2 year Verizon wireless data plan (see Apple rumored in talks for Verizon budget phone, media tablet) providing reliable Internet access everywhere.
As such, the MacPad will be a fantastic web browsing, news and e-book reading and note taking device. It will be an ideal pairing to Apple’s Mobile Me data cloud service. It will also do the things that the iPhone and iPod Touch do well such as calendaring, reading email, playing music and running mobile apps.

Primarily, the MacPad will provide its biggest innovations in three areas:

1. Great mobile web browsing via Safari
With its larger screen, Safari browser and Verizon Internet, the MacPad will be a fantastic device for browsing the Web.
Since typing in URLs on mobile devices such as the iPhone is still difficult, the MacPad will work best when you synchronize your bookmarks via MobileMe, so your favorite sites are always easily available. Safari’s new top sites design will help with this as well.
With its stylus, you’ll be able to annotate web pages with handwritten notes and sync them to your desktop via MobileMe.
Hero-top-right-05._V244132736_2. News, blog and e-book reading
The MacPad will be a fantastic mobile e-reader. With the MacPad, you’ll be able to browse and read your favorite news sites via Safari in real time (say goodbye to the Kindle’s limited daily news delivery, or as The Daily Show calls it, “aged news”).
Apple will update Safari’s RSS news reader to make finding and browsing blogs easy and free (say goodbye to Kindle’s attempts to charge for blog subscriptions – though you will likely pay Verizon for your data plan in the order of $19.99 – $29.99 monthly).
Apple will also launch an e-bookstore in the iTunes Store (they already sell audiobooks). Given that iTunes surpassed Wal-Mart to become the #1 music storein the U.S. last year, expect an equally ambitious attack on Amazon and the book publishing market.
While the Kindle may stick around awhile due to its easy to read e-ink display, large book catalog and long battery life, I fully expect the MacPad to devastate the appeal of the Kindle in the e-reader market. With the MacPad’s elegant display, capable email, web browsing and note taking, the Kindle just won’t stand a chance in its current form.
3. Handwriting recognition, note taking and sketching
Apple fans have long wished for a Newton successor – and finally, the MacPad will be it. In 2008, Apple had a job listing for a handwriting recognition engineer. It’s likely they’ve stepped up their investment in OS X’s tablet-based recognition system, Inkwell since then.
I expect Apple will launch a new mobile application called (mobile) Pages that makes note taking, sketching and handwriting recognition easier and more straightforward. Recognition won’t be necessary to make the MacPad useful, but it will assist with organizing, sharing and editing written documents (goodbye to my paper Moleskin notebooks).
The MacPad will also have other cool features such as:
  • AppStore support for specialized applications and games
  • Built in iSight video camera and microphone jack for iChat conferencing and Skype calls
  • Internet sharing of its Verizon WiFi to your iPhone
  • Screen sharing of desktop Mac’s for browsing documents across your home or office network
  • Acting as a large touch screen remote device for Front Row and Apple TV (see recent Remote application update with gestures)
  • A slim fold out stand and Bluetooth wireless to connect Apple’s slim wireless keyboard so you can comfortable read, edit and type away at documents on your MacPad.
Business Goals
The biggest long term goal for the MacPad is to expand the reach of the iTunes store into e-books. The iTunes store surpassed Wal-Mart as the top music retailerin 2008. Building revenue around selling e-books is a logical step.
Similarly, Apple’s AppStore recently announced its 1 billionth download. While not a cash cow yet, expanding the footprint for devices that the AppStore works with also makes sense.
Furthermore, the release of the MacPad will ensure that the Amazon Kindle and its e-bookstore don’t have an uncontested runway to expand their installed base and build a domineering market position.

Predicting Hardware From Existing and Upcoming Product Specifications
The MacPad will be a larger version of a an iPhone and iPod Touch, similar in form factor to a Kindle DX or upcoming CrunchPad – borrowing from the experience Apple’s gained building and marketing its slim MacBook Air.
The MacPad will be built on the iPhone OS instead of OS X. This will help to minimize cost, keep the form factor small, maximize battery life and leverage its investments in the iPhone SDK and AppStore.
To predict the specifications of the MacPad, let’s first compare the key specs of some common forms of these existing and upcoming devices:
iPod Touch: 32 GB, 3.5″ diagonal Display, 480 x 320 resolution display, 36 hours music playback, 4.3″ x 2.4″ x .33″, 4.05 oz., WiFi, $399
iPhone 3GS: 32 GB, 3.5″ diagonal Display, 480 x 320 resolution display, up to 5 hours on 3G and 9 hours on WiFi, 300 hours standby time, 4.5″ x 2.4″ x .48″, 4.8 oz., WiFi/GSM/Edge/Bluetooth, GPS, $299
CrunchPad: .62″ thick, 12″ diagonal screen, $299
Kindle DX: 4 GB, 9.7″ diagonal e-ink screen, 1200 x 824 resolution, 16 level gray scale display, 10.4″ x 7.2″ x 0.38″, 18.9 ounces, EVDO, 4 day battery life, $489
MacBook Air: Runs Mac OS X, 2GB RAM, 128 GB RAM Drive, 13.3″ diagonal display, 1280 x 800 resolution, 12.8″ x 8.98″ x .76″, 3 lbs.,  Bluetooth,WiFi, 5 hours battery life, $1,799 ($1,499 with 120 GB HD)

Based on this, the likely specifications for the MacPad will be something like:

I don’t expect the CrunchPad to last very long once the MacPad launches. I also expect the MacPad will relegate the Kindle to niche status.
When will the MacPad arrive?

With the MacPad, Apple has had a number of technical and business challenges, such as:
  • Steve Jobs’ health challenges and general availability
  • Building a relationship with Verizon to manage data networking for the MacPad and its upcoming netbook (smaller version of the Air)
  • Building relationships with book publishers for the iTunes store and extending the store to handle e-books
  • Upgrading the iPhone OS and SDK to support the MacPad’s larger display and its handwriting capabilities
  • Hardware design for a slim, elegant, lightweight form factor that can provide stability and long battery life.
  • Building Pages, the note taking application and its handwriting recognition engine
  • Improving Safari’s RSS news reading capabilities
Given this, I expect to see Apple release the MacPad in tandem with a slimmer, small Air netbook in either September ’09 or at MacWorld in January ’10 ahead of MacWorld.
 
Enjoy!

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Try scheduling a meeting with his new startup Meeting Planner (https://meetingplanner.io), simpler, faster scheduling for work or play and read his series about building it). Follow @reifman on Twitter.