Waiting for the Mac Tablet

By Matthew Rothenberg  |  Posted 2002-11-18

Waiting for the Mac Tablet

Wheres Apple Computers answer to the Tablet PC? The Mac maker isnt talking yet, but I predict it will have plenty to say about Microsofts new portable-computing initiative next year—if the pen-driven slate takes hold in the market.

Bill Gates pet project is now open for business, and a string of PC makers have lined up to push their own visions of Tablet PC hardware.

Its my strong belief—lets call it a hunch—that prototype Mac tablets are already making the rounds among select developers.

If Im right, this pre-release hardware combines a next-generation, low-power Motorola PowerPC chip and formidable screen real estate into a typically impressive Apple industrial design. The hardware is lightweight and slender, and the battery life skunks comparable Tablet PCs.

Im betting that Apple is employing some pen-input technology from Wacom (which also helped trick out the Tablet PC), but Id say the rest of the software is homegrown, pairing Mac OS X with the companys impressive handwriting-recognition technology.

While I dont know if Microsofts Mac Business Unit is in on the scheme, Id be most surprised if Apple hasnt briefed some of the long-time Mac software companies that have already lined up behind Microsofts tablet initiative, from Adobe to Alias|Wavefront.

Nota bene: Ive yet to get my hands on a smoking pen that will verify the Tablet Macs existence. Any readers with first-hand experience are welcome to drop me a line (in the strictest confidence, of course).

In the meantime, however, theres plenty of circumstantial evidence that Apple is putting together the technological pieces required for a tablet offering. Chip watchers have told us that despite Apples intense work with IBM to integrate Big Blues 64-bit PowerPC 970 into servers and desktop Macs next years, future generations of Motorola silicon will continue to power increasingly powerful Mac portables.

Mac laptop mavens say that (in contrast to this months modest tweaks to the iBook and PowerBook lines) Apples notebook engineers are working on radical new designs for 2003—under security thats draconian even by Cupertino standards.

Finally, theres Apples InkWell handwriting-recognition technology. InkWell, which traces its roots back to the Rosetta software behind Apples late, lamented Newton PDA, was developed for the classic Mac OS as well as Mac OS X.

When I broke that story back in 2000, InkWell was already robust and stable. With little or no time devoted to training the software, pen-wielding Mac users could input text; navigate the Finder, applications and the Internet; and enter commands without recourse to a keyboard.

Although many InkWell features made it into the recent Jaguar release of Mac OS X, the softwares full potential has yet to be realized on a system actually designed around pen input. (Interestingly, Wacom was reportedly a key collaborator on the InkWell project.)

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Technological considerations aside, there are also marketing priorities that should drive Apple tablet-ward sooner than later. As a vertically integrated company whose product lines rely completely on its own proprietary hardware and software, Apple cant afford to take a flyer on every new initiative attempted by the Wintel juggernaut. But with a large percentage of its revenues based on its portable devices, it also cant ignore a new effort to reshape the notebook market.

In a recent interview with eWEEK, for example, Acer Chairman Stan Shih expressed high hopes for the Tablet PC in the education market and multimedia—two markets Apple cant afford to cede. The Tablet PCs early successes as a vehicle for electronic publishing (including plans for electronic versions of magazines such as the New Yorker and Forbes) couldnt help but command the attention of a company as closely tied to the publishing market as Apple.

Those of us with a Mac pedigree are wont to portray Apple as a trailblazer whose lead the PC majority follows. And indeed, the company has set agendas ever since the revolutionary plug-and-play features of the Apple II. In the case of portable computing, its frequently taken the lead with product advances great and small—from its pioneering Newton to the niceties of the recent SuperDrive-equipped PowerBook G4.

However, Apple has never operated in a vacuum, either as a developer or a marketer. The company was quite late to the notebook party, despite pleas from mobile Mac users; it held off on entering that market until it had concocted its own twist on the design, and it wasnt until after some false starts (viz. the 1989 debut of the $5,800, 16-pound Mac Portable) that the company actually hit its stride in 1991 with the first PowerBooks.

During the second reign of Steve Jobs, Apple is a far more focused place than it was during the John Sculley administration of the late 80s, and its already got more than a decade of mobile computing experience under its belt.

The Macs minority status (and Apples economic realities) mean that the company has to pick its battles; however, I believe its going to arrive well-armed for this one, should it choose to compete.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.

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