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I have no life, so I must blog

Right now I'm busy working on a couple of short writing gigs — taking a week or so off from the grind on "Rule 34", which is half-written (or half-baked, depending on the mood I'm in) — and trying to recover my joi de vivre.

Meanwhile, I am a geek with no life so of course I must blog about the Announcement from Apple that's due tomorrow, and which Steve Jobs says is "the most important thing I've ever done". I believe in giving hostages to fortune, so here's what I wrote about it last July:

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.
There: one hostage to fortune delivered! About as controversial as saying "water is wet" at this point in time. So, using my imagination, what would I like to see?


I'd like to see two models — a 10" slate, and a smaller, 7" jacket-pocket-sized machine. (If you want a size metaphor, think of the Kindle DX and the regular Kindle — the former is a wee bit cumbersome, but excellent for textbooks, while the latter is what you want to read a novel on.)

I'd like to see, for the first time ever, a multitouch-based text input system that works and that scales. The iPhone's keyboard is crippled by the 4" screen size — for me, it's something I have to poke at with a single finger. A 7" screen would permit two- or four-finger typing, while a 10" screen has room for touch-typing. Drawbacks (the lack of sensory feedback) are offset against benefits (no mechanical keyswitches, no gaps for crumbs to fall down). Just please give us something that works?

I'd like to see a tablet that is more of a computer than the iPhone/iPod touch. The existing Apple tablets are read-only appliances; while you can enter text or draw on them, it's cumbersome and tiresome, suitable only for quick emails or text messaging. Mostly you're expected to use a laptop or desktop computer to shovel data into the device, then read/watch/listen to it on the move. The tablet needs to do a bit more, and including a multitouch version of iWork will be as essential to its success as a new platform (assuming that's what Apple are doing) as was the inclusion of MacWrite and MacDraw with the original 128K Mac.

I'd like to see the rumours about publishers, Apple, and an agency model for ebook sales come true, please. This is publishing industry insider policy wonk territory here, so let's just say I think it's terribly important and move on swiftly to: the App store to be joined by a Book store.

Battery life: many commentators — who show no sign of ever having used an ebook reader — seem to think that anything less than a 24 hour battery life is going to cripple any ebook reading device. This is complete nonsense. While reading a novel cover-to-cover may indeed take many hours, few people do such a thing without taking a break, if only to go to the toilet. A more realistic picture is that people read for a couple of hours a day while commuting. If reading at home, it's usually in bed, in a chair, or on a sofa — conveniently close to a power strip. Most of us are very rarely more than 6 hours from a wall socket, and if the tablet takes after the iPhone in charging over USB, an in-car adapter will do the job too. (If Apple's designers go for magsafe or an entirely new charge system this may be another matter, but I don't think they're that stupid.) More realistically, look to the battery life of the iPod Touch when playing movies or games as a guideline to what to expect.

Finally, if I'm going to ask for a pony, I'd like Apple to pursue a more enlightened policy towards folks who want to, er, compute on the computing device they just bought. The iPhone OS is locked down tight because under the hood it's a kluge; if you jailbreak it you discover to your horror that everything runs as root, and there's even a hopelessly weak root password ("alpine") on what is actually a networked UNIX box as powerful as a mid-1990s Sun workstation. I'll settle for a virtualized sandbox if inecessary, instead of a fully implemented security system — but please can I have a shell, a python interpreter, and some elbow room? (Not likely, but I can hope ...)

Here's the key insight, though: Apple have been working on this thing for years. Steve Jobs is excited enough about it to say so in the middle of a financials call focussing on the previous quarter — that's odd and unusual enough to add support to the hypothesis that Apple is getting ready to launch something that they hope will be to the Macintosh as the Mac was to the Apple II: an entirely new paradigm for personal computing — one that is network-centric, but in a rather different direction from Google's Android platform (which is Google cloud-centric instead — a subtle but important distinction). And if that isn't enough to make you sit up and pay attention, you're more jaded than I am after 30 years of computer industry watching.

The launch event is at 6pm tomorrow, 10am in California. And in case you were wondering about my new year's resolution: I've stuck to it so far, but see the small print (specifically clause 5).

55 Comments

1:

Since you're asking for a pony, here's a link to a story completely unrelated to anything except the coming takeover of the financial system by rogue trading programs. Something on which you had a few words to say, if I'm not mistaken. (Ok, so they'd evolved by the time you got around to mentioning them. Not a big deal, really!)

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/84950872-09e5-11df-8b23-00144feabdc0.html

;)

2:

What is this "life" thing of which you speak?

3:

Good multi-touch keyboards are possible. Apple acquired the multi-touch technology by buying Fingerworks who used to make the 'touchstream' multi-touch keyboards. Second hand touchstream keyboards now reach stupid prices on ebay ($1500!).

(Ignore the 'buttons' visible in images of them - they are true multi-touch surfaces that used an array of capacitive proximity sensors to track all your fingers. The software use gesture recognition to switch seamlessly from typing to mouse-movements (tap different fingers for lmb, rmb, etc) to more elaborate multi-finger gestures like two-finger zoom. Obviously they aren't screens, and the only tactile feedback is some small dimples at the home-key locations.)

4:

The involvement of 3G networks (and potential subsidies) points away from a device we're free to hack on, sadly.

5:

You'll probably get the improved interface you want. There's no way apple would squander the improved real estate by simply scaling up the iphone keyboard and hucking it on there.

Your wish for a "general computing" device is probably less likely. I think apple is going to be motivated to maintain their "appstore" approach for their mobile devices. Why let you install whatever you like on it when they can control the channel and take a cut of whatever you download? If this thing starts cannibalizing iphone sales they'll want to make sure that you're still getting your software through them.

6:

I will, however, heartily re-iterate your pony wishing. If apple released a powerful tablet with a decent interface, and let programmer types play with it, I think I'd convert overnight.

7:

I strongly doubt you'll get a worthy touch-typing experience from a touchscreen, even with haptic feedback. The haptic helps you feel when keystrokes register, yes, but it doesn't help you find the keys by touch in the first place. That was the problem with the two QWERTY-style keyboards I experimented with on my 7" touchscreen... and I don't see the added real estate on a 10" making this better. I think the best you'll get is an advanced hunt-and-peck style of data entry.

I agree that you don't need a 24 hour battery life; I was able to handle Worldcon with two five-hour batteries without any worries about running short except for the day I forgot to recharge either the night before... What does worry me, though, is Apple's ongoing reliance on integral batteries which either limits the device's lifespan or requires a factory rebuild after the LiIon/LiPoly battery degrades below the user's comfort threshold. On a mobile device, swappable batteries is a must-have feature for me. (Preferably with an external charger, so you can have one battery running the device and one charging at home/office/car/etc.) I made an exception on that with my Zune, and I regret it.

Again, though, I'm awaiting actual concrete evidence that this is going to be about a slate device instead of an uprated iPhone or a new Macbook or All-in-One, or something entirely out-of-the-blue.

-- Steve

8:

Processing power looks to me like the big question. Slates aren't exactly new, and they have always used intel-type processors that makes them (including the battery) at least netbook weight. ARM on the other hand is approaching fast-enough for desktop things, but it appears to be somewhat off yet.

The thing is, once it feels like it should have laptop-like capailities, you want it run at least some of your desktop programs. Hving a well-filled app store then becomes a pure necessity instead of a Unique Selling Point.

9:

The 7" one would do me very nicely if it had some sort of half-way decent keyboard emulation and good WP software etc., provided it'll fit into a reasonably large coat pocket. The usual $800 = 800 pounds conversion we tend to see in the UK would probably kill it for me, unfortunately.

The 10" is going to be too big for my needs as a browser / ebook reader / etc. and too small to be a laptop replacement. It sounds like it'd be a nice netbook alternative, but I really don't need a netbook as such,

10:

For power, I'd like to see inductive charging as well as USB charging.

See, for a tablet I want something "always on" that I can just pick up and use. Whether it be for a quick surfing of the web, checking weather reports, remote-controlling iTunes on the Mac Mini, or reading a book. Pick up and use. This means NO CABLES. So inductive charging; just remember to put the tablet onto the charging pad each night. USB charging then becomes a backup method (eg while travelling).

(In theory a cradle might work, but I don't think they really scale properly to the 7" of higher form factors; you end up with something like a docking station, which are ugly as sin in comparison).

11:

While we're wishing, how about the e-book reader manufacturers all gang together and get the airplane security theater under control?

The last thing I'm going to do is switch to an e-book reader if the TSA (or European equivalent) is likely to stage another bogus crackdown and leave me on a long plane ride with no reading matter....

This may not be that unrealistic a wish --- after all, the airlines seem to have been able to kill even sensible security measures if they are commercially inconvenient (check my government ID against a boarding pass I printed? puh-leeze!)

12:

Anton @7: It will not have a swappable battery unless I am very much mistaken. Cutting a hole and fitting a door or having a dismountable battery pack fit into a niche in the case will weaken the structure substantially and Apple is trapped in the "thin" paradigm with the Air and the iPhone designs. The iSlate (or whatever it will be called) has to be thin but also rigid enough not to crack or even flex noticeably. That mean no large holes in the case anywhere. The best you're certain to get is the ability to use a Magsafe power connector as standard. A technology longshot might be a "mat" for desktop use offering wired GigE connectivity, wireless power charging etc. -- put the ISlate down on the mat and it starts charging with no need to plug stuff in plus short-range high-speed data connections to FW800 and USB 3.0 devices.

Of course it might just be Steve getting rid of all those old Newtons left in the back of the Cupertino warehouse.

13:

I really hope they come up with a workable input system, as the only excuse I've been able to think of to buy it is as a note taking device for school.

14:

"The iPhone OS is locked down tight because under the hood it's a kluge; if you jailbreak it you discover to your horror that everything runs as root, and there's even a hopelessly weak root password ("alpine")"

It's not a kludge, it's just using different security mechanisms than the ones Unix has had since 1970. Apps and the system are protected through code-signing and sandboxing. Saying "if you jailbreak it it's insecure" is redundant, like saying "if you rip out the security, it's insecure."

This isn't going to change. The UNIX security model is problematic at best for user workstations because it's meant for protecting multiple users against each other — it doesn't matter how strong the root password is, if I download a Trojan Horse that has access to all my documents. (The Windows model is of course even weaker.) For something like an appliance, especially something you need to make phone calls, it's unworkably weak.

Apple isn't the only one doing this, either. Google Chrome (which I work on) uses a similar sandbox model for web pages, and desktop Safari has begun to move that direction (although just with plugins like Flash for now.)

15:

I just want a respectable (and affordable) slate design that can replace my Wacom tablet. You writer-types get to go to coffeehouses with your laptops and convince everyone that you do something all day; we webcomic artists are mostly stuck indoors chained to a full desktop rig that pumps out heat like a New Wave SF-era space cruiser. If Apple can liberate me from my drawing-exoskeleton, I'll stop accusing Steve Jobs of controlling people's minds with satellites and fluoride.

16:

Jens: just because you get a shiny new lock for your front door, it doesn't follow that you should chuck away the old deadbolt. That's my point about the iPhone OS: while the UNIX security model isn't great, it's still there as a backstop.

Insisting on signed code is inadequate; the signed code in question may contain an exploit, and exploits can be inserted by corrupted compilers and linkers without ever showing up in the source code -- see Ken Thompson's paper here -- so unless Apple's testers are (a) reviewing the source code of all submitted apps line-by-line and (b) compiling the apps themselves on Apple-trusted kit, it's no guarantee of security and integrity. (And given that some folks have established that Apple have 40 reviewers approving 8500 apps a week, each app gets just five hours, max.)

17:

off topic (web plumbing)

there a broken link in 'at this point in time'

source :-
<a href="<a href="http://www.techcrunch.com/2010/01/25/apple-tablet-barnes-noble-bookstore/">point>/a<

19:

Kyle, if you're willing to come over to the Dark Side there are tablet PCs with WACOM layers atop their displays. They used to have huge price premiums but that's coming down significantly. (Way less than Cintiqs, though of course they're not as big.)

-- Steve

20:

Also, WACOM-based tablet PCs have been around for quite some time, so you can pick up good ones second hand.

I have heard good things about Thinkpad X-series convertibles and Fujitsu slates, both can be found on ebay for around, even less than 300 euros.

They weigh around 1.5 kilos, so probably more than an iSlate, but they have very decent computing power underneath compared to netbooks or ARMs.

21:

Hm. I'll check those tablet PCs out, especially if the prices have started to drop. I really miss working while at a coffee-shop, or a Panera, or really any place but in this one chair for ten hours a day. Besides, how can I be part of the East Coast liberal elite unless I'm sitting in a Starbucks trying to monetize my liberal arts degree?

22:

The only way it could be better:
http://www.pidjin.net/2010/01/25/iwish/

23:

It's possible, in principle, that there would be a sandboxed programming environment of some sort-- but I doubt it. Really doubt it. Microscopically more likely (but still very doubtful), something like Applescript for automation of tablet tasks.

24:

The idea of a portable device with interpreters for one or more scripting languages is very tempting.

I currently have an HTC Magic and I'm a huge fan of Android Scripting Environment, which lets you write scripts in several scripting languages, including Python, Perl and JavaScript, and gives you access to much of the Android API. Sadly the text editor built into it lets it down somewhat (it's unbelievably fiddly to use when you're used to Vim), so that limits its usefulness when out and about. It's probably better on Android phones with a physical keyboard though.

Something similar for the Apple tablet would be very nice.

25:
as was the inclusion of MacWrite and MacDraw with the original 128K Mac.

FWIW, I think it was MacPaint rather than MacDraw.

26:

As for ponies, a touchless/touch interface using proximity sensing pixels would be a fine pony indeed. Nothing is more aggravating than oily finger prints and smudges.

28:

Uh, Charlie and others, you do know that you can write whatever programs you like for your iPhone, without having to submit them for App Store approval, just by signing up for the Apple Developer Connection program?

It's $US99 a year, but all the developer tools are a free download. Compile whatever you like, install it on your iPhone over USB, absolutely no way for Apple to interfere.

If you're an FSF member you're going to be disappointed, but you can hack on your iPhone if you want.

29:

Hmmm, interesting.
Personally I think that for typing you have to have a keyboard around or 9 inches across for ease of use. And touchscreens are fun but in search of a niche - if one could recognise my handwriting that would be great. Plus if it was just a flat tablet it would save a little volume from the keyboard. Looking at my asus t91 something around 9 or 10 inches across would be fine. Of course it would have to have multiple touch capability.
On battery life, I personally find a guaranteed 5 hours would be enough - its enough to work with all train journey long, enough for an afternoons note taking and wi-fi surfing. And given how small stuff gets do you really need a very powerful processor? Just how effective is apple software at dealing with the internet and videos etc?

30:

When Mr Jobs comes down from the mountain (today)

You got to hand it to Apple - they have maintained their computing cult longer than anyone else!!!

31:

Christ, the Apple fundies are going to be even more annoying, if that's even possible. I imagined certain contributors in the last flame bait thread typing with a glazed expression. Still, it's exciting!

http://gizmodo.com/5452501/the-apple-tablet-interface-must-be-like-this

Touch typing on a tablet over a prolonged period just seems insane. Lying it flat means you'll be getting back and neck problems having to hunch over it. You can't touch type if you're holding it which surely is what you'll be doing most of the time (the gizmodo article points to an interesting solution to this). Maybe a stand to angle the device but that seems to go completely against the Apple aesthetic.

32:

Typing, typing - who wants to type? Hopefully you can just talk to it...

33:

Talk to it? Well, suppose Apple had secretly perfected subvocal input technology -- that is, a device which detects the movements of your muscles when you talk to yourself without making sound. Or some other radical new IO technology. Contact lens HUDs.

I can't see them releasing it. There's an Overton window for Apple products: they must be immediately understandable, and not make the user look like a dweeb. Thus, we will not see any radical new IO modalities from Apple.

34:

To be honest, I'd settle for a few more apps about which make the small electronic devices I already have (the Creative Zen MP3 player, the PSP, the old Palm M515) a bit more flexible. For example, I'd like to be able to use the PSP (which already has a good form factor for portability and ease-of-use) to read things like ebooks, rather than having to try and find the money for a dedicated ebook reader. I'd like to be able to use my 30G Zen to play music in the car, rather than having to put up with the commercials on the radio (and no, I don't want to switch over to an iPod, because I don't want to have to covert over the majority of my 16 GB of music which is in .wma format into .mp3 - the Zen handles .wma without flinching). Failing that, I'll settle for something which can act as an organiser for a gazillion different cords, chargers and connectors so I can actually find the fecking things the second time I need them.

35:

Truth be told, you can sell books on the iPhone right now. If you want to have one of your books in the App store, I can make that happen from text to publishing in less than three months. That said, you've got to be content to give Apple their 30% due, which is a bit stiff for pure content.

36:

While you're right in that you could publish a book on the AppStore the trouble is that there's no category for books. Which means it would be buried under the gajillion other 'entertainment' apps that litter the place.

Allowing anyone with a bit of coding skill to publish is what gives us all the crap that fills up the internet. It's not going to be any better in a closed market. Just wait til we get the equivalent of those link sites as apps.

Gateways to get rid of the rubbish, like book publishing companies, are useful, which is why they can make money.

37:
I'd like to see the rumours about publishers, Apple, and an agency model for ebook sales come true, please.
Ars Technica (if you've not noticed it yet) signals that at least one publisher, McGraw Hill, will offer almost all its catalog on the iTablet. or iPad. or iSlate. or iWhatever.

The interesting bit, as Ars notices, is that it's the first official/non-anon-sekrit source that speaks of the tablet and its content.
38:

I think you missed some history on the ARM.

The original ARM chips were for desktop computers. The Wikipedia article has a history of the design. If this new machine is ARM-based, can we have BBC BASIC on it?

39:

Apple's been waiting a long time for this announcement. My bet is that it isn't going to be the hardware or even the software that's revolutionary - it will be the licensing. You can watch video on an Ipod, but it's silly. A tablet size would be reasonably comfortable, especially in bed or in an armchair. I suspect Apple is going to announce that not only does the ... Ipad? ... have the obvious touchscreen Ilife equivalent, but purchase grants you streaming access to some major media libraries.

40:

Sure, there is nothing about ARM that makes it less suitable, as far as I know at least. I used ARM more as a shorthand for "low-power consumption focussed phone parts".

Most tablets I have seen up to now are just not light-weight enough to have a iPhony feel to them, and battery weight is an important limation there. A 10-inch tablet based on PC parts is going to weigh roughly the same as a 10" netbook, or it will have terrible battery life.

So the whole new idea is that we can now have tablets based on phone-parts, "ARM" so to say. But no matter how fast phones have become, at this moment they appear to have somewhat less power then people would accept from a normal computer.

So that means a very heavy "expectations-management" job, because once people have a netbook-sized screen and a normal keyboard, they are going to expect netbook-like performance, and they will want to run normal Mac software on it.

Unless you can very carefully convince them that your tablet is not a "computer" but "something different". Perhaps Apple can, or perhaps their machine is faster than I expect it can be for acceptable weight.

41:

What I'd want from Apple is an acknowledgement that if I buy one at full price - not subsidised by any carrier or other company - then if I hack the firmware to get root and install whatever software I please, it's entirely up to me if I screw up but they won't try to wrest control of it back from me.

Let the faithful stay inside the walled garden if they wish. Some of us like to explore despite the dangers.

42:

JulesLt -

The involvement of 3G networks (and potential subsidies) points away from a device we're free to hack on, sadly.
The existence of the N900 shows that 3G networks are not incompatible with hackability. Subsidies, maybe. (But if you want someone else to pay for your toys why would you be surprised if they get to decide what you do with it?)

43:

Uh, I spoke too soon. You can in fact get the N900 subsidised. So 3G networks and operator subsidy have nothing at all to do with hackability.

44:

I find the $99 requirement for registering as a developer a bit smelly; as Apple are already in the business of authenticating devices over the net (as anyone who's used iTunes will be aware), why not give away the dev tools (just as they do with the Mac Xcode environment) and let users compile and load whatever they want onto their own iPhone/iPod Touch only?

If they did that, I wouldn't have needed (or bothered) to jailbreak my iPhone, and we'd have a microecology of FOSS running on the iPhone by now. (App #1: a terminal environment. App #2: busybox. App #3: DarwinPorts.)

The only reason that I can see why they haven't done this is because they're afraid their security model isn't up to snuff.

45:
I really hope they come up with a workable input system, as the only excuse I've been able to think of to buy it is as a note taking device for school.

If they don't, Dasher[1] is available for the iPhone, and I've heard claims that it's as fast as handwriting. Yes, it looks weird, but if it works...

1: http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher/

46:

That Dasher program is pretty cool, but however hard I try, I can't see any situation were I could use it.

It seems intended to input text with a laser-pen on a digital blackboard, or something similar to that.

47:

Having to use a Mac to develop for the iPhone is what annoys me the most.

There's a ton of developers out there, like myself, who could make good stuff for the iPhone but who are basically told that they're not wanted in Apple land.

48:

Robin: what part of Apple land doesn't include Macs?

49:

You can use Dasher with _any_ kind of input. It's intended also for diasbled people, there's multiple modes of input where you can write with just one or two buttons, with a mouse -- one-dimentional or two-dimentional input, using an accelerometer... pedals... whetever; there's tons of parameters you can adjust. Trust me, it's a miracle input method. IIRC someone demonstrated how you can control it using your breathing.

50:

And the iPad is out.
8.9" capacitive IPS panel. double iPhone resolution.
n-wifi, bt, no 3g.
10h battery, about a month standby.
iBooks store.

Possibility of another device between the iPhone and laptops was also mentioned.

Looks like Charlie was spot on. :)

51:

corrections:
unlocked 3g is 130$ extra.
iPad starts at 499$ for the 16GB version without 3g.
there will also be a keyboard dock.

52:

Looks to me that this will probably be a Stross purchase this year. It seems to match your expectations (see below) and maybe even your desired publishing needs with the iBook store. It looks to me that Apple has hit the sweet spot for the iPad.

I'm particularly interested in the implications of the no contract 3G connectivity.

Screen 10" - YES

iPHONE OS - YES

ARM chip - NO - Custom Apple A4 chip

screen keyboard - YES. Dock with real keyboard too.

3G connection - YES - WiFi and bluetooth + optional 3G 2 good plans (w AT&T no contract)

eBooks - Possibly. iBookStore plus plus ePub format. (deals with 5 publishers)

2-6hrs battery life - better: 10hrs.

Price $800 - BETTER - $499 WiFi + 16GB , $829 WiFi + 3G + 64GB

53:

In the US it's going to be sold unlocked and contract free, though AT&T will have dedicated offerings. Not sure what they'll end up offering outside the US, but this is very good for here...

The iBook store is a killer app, IMO. Apart from battery life this blows away all other ebook readers. Once they get textbooks on here....

54:

Meg, you could upgrade your car stereo for one that has an "aux" input. Costs a lot less than an iPod, and you normally get a USB input too.

55:

Comments closed -- continue in the next posting, if you want to discuss the iPad.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on January 26, 2010 12:55 PM.

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