What Innovation Could an Apple Tablet Offer?

by Braden Kelley

Screen technology for the Apple Tablet?With all of the internet chatter about Apple’s rumored tablet computer, I’ve been asking myself two questions:

1. Does it make sense for Apple to make a tablet computer?
2. What innovation could an Apple tablet offer?

These questions are not as easy to answer as they may appear at first glance. The main reason? When it comes to technology, just because technically you can make something, it doesn’t mean commercially that you should. Technology often begins maturing before consumers are aware of the need or pain that the solution addresses and before the minds of consumers can visualize how it fits into their lives. So, when we look at the Apple tablet chatter and Question #1, we have to ask ourselves:

What is the proven or imminent customer need that an Apple table computer would resolve?

Tablet computers have been around for decades and Tablet PCs have been around since 2001 (offered by multiple vendors including Toshiba, HP, etc.). Tablet PC’s have achieved very low market penetration in that eight years (outside of certain vertical success stories), but still every manufacturer has one.

There is already a MacOS driven tablet computer for sale – the Modbook – and it is not exactly flying off the shelves. Competitors are making noise about new tablet computers, too. Microsoft is reportedly working to launch a new Tablet PC platform called Microsoft Courier and there are reports of Android-based tablets coming soon too. All this noise despite Tablet PC sales being only a small fraction of overall PC sales. So what gives?

Well, computer manufacturers believe that a shift may occur to a new computing form factor in the same way that PC sales started shifting from desktop computers to laptop computers a few years ago. But despite Tablet PC’s being out before netbooks by several years, it was the netbook that took off, not the Tablet PC.

Apple Tablet to challenge the Kindle?At the same time, consumers are shifting a portion of their computing from desktops and laptops (and even netbooks) to the emerging class of always-connected handheld computers (Apple iPhone, Motorola Droid, new Blackberry devices, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, etc.). Hardware manufacturers are making their bets now and have been for the last several years to maintain a complete product range and guard against any potential shift away from desktop and laptop PC’s. There are even rumors that Dell may make a mobile phone.

If Apple launches a Tablet PC, they will not be successful, but I don’t think that a traditional Tablet PC is what Apple is looking at. Apple does not launch me-too products. Apple seeks to launch products that offer greater value than the competition and products with new benefits so that they can justify higher prices and margins than the competition.

In isolation, my answer to Question #1 would be – No, it does not make sense, for Apple to make a tablet computer. There is no proven customer need that an Apple Tablet PC could solve.

BUT, there are some imminent customer needs that Apple could solve, IF it could create enough compelling innovation (see Question #2).

So what innovation could Apple offer and how would it satisfy imminent customer needs?

Well, electronic book readers haven’t exactly taken off yet (Amazon still won’t disclose how many Kindles they’ve sold – always a sign of hype), but prices are dropping and the recognition of their value in the minds of consumers is growing.

At the same time, most households own one or more portable DVD players and often one or more gaming consoles (including portable gaming devices) and one or more portable music devices. These taken together with the emerging market for electronic book readers, represents a huge number of portable entertainment devices.

Now, the screens for an electronic book reader and other portable entertainment devices are very different, but could Apple find a way to combine the two types of screens together in a single device? The Barnes & Noble Nook does this in a very primitive way. Apple could create some very interesting innovations to create a whole new form factor and create a whole new portable entertainment device category at the same time, one that:

  1. Combines an e-ink display with a color LED-backlit LCD
  2. Wirelessly connects to an iMac, Macbook, wireless keyboard, projector or other peripherals
  3. Connects to your HD television
  4. Is good enough at gaming to challenge game consoles for living room supremacy
  5. Would provide a better video viewing experience than an iPod Touch or iPhone
  6. Has the potential to disrupt the book industry even further
  7. Has the potential to disrupt the video gaming and DVD markets even further
  8. Has the potential to disrupt the Mac applications market (expanded App Store anyone?)
  9. Integrates new human-computer interfaces like the iPhone did when it came out
  10. Does something else that I can’t imagine because I’m not close enough to the technology

This list, along with the imminent customer needs, makes it look reasonable for Apple to launch another portable form factor, but it doesn’t make sense to bring out a device in the $1,000-$2,000 price range. So, if Apple comes out with a tablet, it won’t be a computer per se, but more likely a portable entertainment device that happens to also have some computing capabilities. Kind of like the iPhone…

What do you think? Will Apple do it?

Will new display technology like that of Pixel Qi allow Apple to disrupt the Kindle by offering a device that combines the readability of an e-ink screen with the color and video capabilities of an LCD?

Will you buy one in the $499-599 price range? What about for $299-399 range if it is subsidized by a mobile carrier (probably Verizon or Sprint)?

Can this concept succeed until 4G is broadly available (2011 or 2012 for the USA)?

Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is the editor of Blogging Innovation and founder of Business Strategy Innovation, a consultancy focusing on innovation and marketing strategy. Braden is also @innovate on Twitter.

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