Apple's Tablet PC Rumors Refuse to Die, Despite Lack of News

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2009-11-03

Apple's Tablet PC Rumors Refuse to Die, Despite Lack of News

The game of "Guess the Features of the Apple Tablet PC" has kept analysts and media rampantly speculating over the past few months, despite Apple's refusal to either confirm or deny the development of a touch-screen device. The rumor mill's refusal to stop churning likely indicates two things: first, that Apple's products, no matter how vaporware, continue to have a stranglehold on the popular imagination; and second, that Apple may not be quite as good at keeping secrets as in past years.

Despite the lack of serious news, or at least a firm confirmation or denial from Apple, the company continues to create buzz around a product that many are expecting even with a general lack of firsthand knowledge. That said, Apple's reliance on more partners this time around, unlike the build-up to the iPhone, has provided industry watchers and analysts with more ideas about an Apple Tablet's form factor and capabilities.

"As Apple has moved into new product areas, it's had to widen its supply chain," Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, said in an interview with eWEEK. "By doing that, they have more people sworn to secrecy, but leakage is almost inevitable. Apple has lost some control over that process."

Kay believes that a tablet PC from Apple will make its debut relatively soon.

A few years ago, Kay added, "Apple kept secrets well enough so that [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs could plausibly deny something. But now you have leaks in places like Taiwan, where you have a lot of loose lips. The iPhone was sort of known before it came out, in a very limited kind of way, but this tablet PC has been more thoroughly dissected."

Apple's partners have also leaked information.

With recent scuttlebutt focused on Apple's supposed discussions with media companies over porting the latter's content onto a tablet PC, a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald featured executives from Australian news outlets suggesting they had been in talks with Apple officials over such a deal.

"It is understood that Apple has been in direct talks with Australian media companies to launch a new app for the tablet that would allow them to distribute their content in digital form and charge for it," that article mentioned. "Apple's model has been to give developers 70 percent of the revenue and to keep a 30 percent cut. It is expected a similar deal will be offered to media companies."

Last week, news outlets reported on how Bill Keller, an executive editor at The New York Times, referred to "the impending Apple slate" in a speech at TheTimesCenter in New York. No matter that Keller's marks were originally intended as off the record; once the news started to leak-a transcript of his remarks found its way onto the Website of the Nieman Journalism Lab-it spread faster than a brush fire up a dry Los Angeles hillside.

Keller subsequently declined to elaborate on whether he meant "Apple slate" as in a tablet-PC-like product or "Apple slate" as in Apple's generalized lineup of devices.

Apple Tablets Form Factor


Analysts have used the buzz as a jumping-off point for speculation about the tablet PC's ultimate form factor. A few days after the Keller news broke, such a report circulated with a paragraph devoted to the specs of a prospective tablet PC:

"Apple is expected to introduce an entry-level Macbook or Tablet device at [estimated] $599-799 by Q2/F10," Mike Abramsky, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, wrote in his Oct. 20 research report. "An Apple Tablet could be media-centric with Multitouch, featuring a 7- to 10-inch touchscreen, WiFi, 16GB/32GB memory, etc."

Combined with a keyboard, a tablet "could also serve as an entry-level Macbook with Apple's trademark superior computing experience, likely integrated with iTunes and Apple's App Store." The device "could be tethered to an iPhone or incorporate an integrated 3G module for connectivity (and possibly be carrier subsidized)."

That report mirrors comments made in August by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who suggested that a tablet PC could feature an operating system based on either a modified version of the Mac OS X or else the iPhone OS with specialized apps adapted for a 7- to 10-inch screen. Munster predicted that the device would sell in the $500 to $700 range, and provide as much as $1.2 billion in revenue for Apple during its first year of release.

That same month, a story in The Wall Street Journal suggested that Jobs has been focusing the bulk of his time and attention on the development of the tablet. Twice before, the article suggested, tablet development had been killed after Jobs raised concerns about the device's battery life and memory capacity.

Jobs sent an e-mail to the Journal stating that "most of your information is incorrect," but the device rumors nonetheless refused to die.

In early October, a number of blogs-starting with Apple Insider-posted links to a patent application filed by Apple in June 2009 for a touch-screen interface. The mechanism described was fairly complex, describing a screen that could be manipulated with both the fingers and the palms; this sort of versatility would open up a multitouch device to a broad amount of uses, particularly in the realm of multimedia.

"Apple has a history of being outspoken, denying they were doing something they were in fact actually doing," Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said in an e-mail to eWEEK. "But the patent filing made it very hard for them to maintain this."

A few weeks after news of the patent broke, Apple announced that it had hired Michael Tchao, formerly involved in the development of the Newton personal digital assistant, to become its vice president of product marketing. His exact role is still a secret to the outside world, but Tchao's links to a former version of a popular PDA set off another round of speculation that the hiring had something to do with a tablet PC's release.  

At this juncture, the most surprising rumor concerning the tablet PC would be that Apple decided to kill the project altogether. Until something more substantial emerges, however, the online community will doubtlessly attempt to continue to fill the void with more speculation.

"Certainly in the past, Jobs has thrown a red herring to people and said something was stupid only to release it three months later, but they haven't been doing that lately," Kay said. "Their days of flying under the radar are sort of over, but their older culture also persists: They manage leakage very carefully, and use it to manage the buzz in advance."


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