(I used to earn my crust writing features for computer magazines. The urge still occasionally bites me. YMMV.)
"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk" — Steve Jobs, October 2008, on the netbook market.
I'm a member of the cult of Mac by way of the UNIX lineage; back in the day I'd have given my left nut for a NeXT workstation, and the way Apple's platform (if not their consumer app lock-in) has evolved over the past decade has given me a much nicer alternative to the PC/Linux route. Apple are the BMW of the personal computing field; they've not only got snob and designer brand cachet, but they make well-engineered, solid machines that don't make you tear your hair out. (As long as you obey rule #1: never buy release 1.0 of a new model — the return rate will be crazy as they iron out the hardware snags.)
And so I'm rather interested in the rumours of a forthcoming Apple netbook or tablet device. And the rumours are coming in thick and fast right now. Apple are pathologically secretive about new releases — Steve Jobs has been in the business long enough to understand the Osborne Effect at a gut level — but it's hard to conceal a bulk order for display panels from an OEM, placed in March, with deliveries to commence in Q3/2009. Rumours of an Apple Tablet have been circulating for a couple of years. Very recently, reports of an Apple/Verizon tablet hook-up have begun to surface. Finally, there's the tragic case of Foxconn engineer Sun Danyong who committed suicide earlier this week after being accused of stealing or losing one of a batch of sixteen prototype "fourth generation iphones" that had been sent to Foxconn by Apple. Consider: the iPhone 3GS, announced about two months ago, was the third generation iPhone. This may be a new iPhone (the rumoured iPhone nano, or the rumoured no-GPS Chinese market iPhone), but ... sending lots of prototypes to the manufacturing subcontractor implies that production is due to start within a few months. Rather than a phone, could the missing prototype be a 3G-enabled Apple netbook or tablet?
Anyway, the rumour mill is grinding frantic and furious, and the rumours mesh with what I'm expecting, which is ...
We're not going to see a Mac Netbook. There are two reasons for this. First (and most important, from Apple's point of view) it would slaughter their profit margin by cannibalizing Macbook and iMac sales from underneath. Second, Steve Jobs was right: running OS/X on a $500 computer is a ghastly experience. I've done it. I've taken an Asus Eee 1000 (with a 40Gb SSD and 2Gb of RAM) and squished OS/X 10.5.5 onto it. It worked, after a fashion. Two minute boot times are not going to go down well in the consumer marketplace; nor are dialog boxes chopped off at the bottom by the netbook-standard 1024x600 pixel screen. (Yes, they could in principle push out a compact laptop with a higher resolution screen — but that's going to drive the price up.) The real problem is that netbooks are built around a low-power CPU and cheap embedded video chipset that simply aren't up to providing the user experience Apple customers have gotten used to. OS/X on a netbook crawls like Vista.
On the other hand, there are Signs and Portents. In the past couple of years, Apple has purchased chip design house P. A. Semi, presumably for their ARM architecture expertise. Apple is serious about ARM development, and use the Cortex A8 in the new iPhone 3GS; they've also bootstrapped a huge developer community and application store for the new OSX-on-ARM platform that is the iPhone and the iPod Touch.
My bet is that what we're going to see is what you might call an iPod Touch HD. It'll have a 10" multi-touch screen, probably 1280x800 pixels (a standard Apple resolution, rather than the Netbook spec 1024x600). It will run a version of the iPhone OS — OSX ported to run on ARM hardware rather than Intel, with a different user interface. There may well be haptic feedback for the on-screen keyboard (as featured on MIDs like the Viliv S5) , or some species of "real" keyboard — either a clamshell like a netbook, or a slider like a high-end mobile phone. (My money is on the on-screen keyboard with haptic feedback — it makes for a cleaner design.) It'll almost certainly have a 3G data connection, and some sources have been touting an $800 price point; others suggest it'll be subsidized to $300 when sold with a monthly mobile data contract.
What you can do with it: surf the web. Check your email. All the stuff you currently do on your iPhone, except use it as a mobile phone for voice calls. Hopefully if it doesn't have a built-in keyboard it'll come with a USB master controller so you can plug in a keyboard and mouse; and hopefully the iPhone app developers will take it to their heart and port everything in the store to run on it soon.
Rumour suggests that it may come with an ebook reader application and Apple are going to go into the ebook market in a big way, rivaling the Amazon Kindle. I think this is unlikely. Firstly, any epaper device on the market will slaughter a colour touchscreen tablet on battery life and outdoor visibility — which are more important in an ebook reader than the ability to watch movies or surf the web. Secondly, the ebook market is immature, short on revenue stream, and notoriously gnarly when you get down to the contract level; Apple's legal department would have all the fun of dealing with an industry even more stick-in-the-mud than the film biz, for an order of magnitude less reward. However, I can see the existing ebook apps for the iPhone platform (notably Ereader, Stanza, and Kindle) piling on board the new tablet in a split second. And? If you don't read out-doors, this will be the ebook reader to kill for.
But here's the killer app: gaming.
Gaming platforms are currently segregated into three categories. We have PCs (or Macs), we have dedicated consoles (Xbox 360/Playstation 3/Wii), and we have handhelds (Nintendo DSi/PSP family/iPhone). iPhone? Yes: the iPhone OS is seen as a major gaming platform, especially with the iPhone 3GS's improved positioning sensors and beefed-up graphics system. Games sell like hot cakes on the iTunes store; and it's not surprising, because on paper the iPhone/iTouch are on a par with, it not superior to, the high end offerings from Sony and Nintendo.
What we don't have is something that combines the portability of the handheld gaming platforms with the large, high-res screens supported by the consoles or PC world games. A 10" multitouch Apple tablet would probably be powerful enough and have a sufficiently large display to make a plausible client for MMOs such as EVE Online or World of Warcraft. It'll be portable as all hell — this thing will be about the size and weight of a trade paperback — and probably more powerful than any current handheld gaming platform. Forget the obvious market niche everyone expects it to fit in — that of Mobile Internet Devices such as the Nokia web tablets — this one could well carve out a niche of its own in a quite unexpected direction.