The Tablet

There is no shortage of hype surround the impending release of Apple’s “tablet” computer tomorrow. According to rumors, Steve Jobs has said “this will be the most important thing I’ve ever done”, yet tablets have, as a rule, largely been a failure in the marketplace. Bill Gates hailed the Windows tablets that first appeared around a decade ago as a revolution in computing, but they were only revolutionary in that they were computers that no one actually bought. Okay, perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but the bottom line was that tablets have been largely relegated to niche markets. How can Apple’s be different?

Microsoft’s tablet platform failed largely because it wasn’t clear what problem it was solving. The main advantage of tablets is that they easier to hold and position for viewing, and somewhat less socially awkward to use when talking to other people. Pen input is a bit of an advantage for certain tasks, like drawing, but is also a drawback for text input, where a keyboard is usually faster. What Apple has to do is offer a solution to a problem; what Apple is good at is offering a solution to a problem that no one realized they had until the solution became apparent.

Consider the iPhone. It’s not a particularly great phone, but it’s a superb pocket computer. Most people who use it as such probably didn’t realize they needed a pocket computer before it appeared.

What’s the problem Apple could solve with the tablet? I think Apple is planning to redefine what a portable computer is. Consider a few points:

The web has become a prominent way to get news and information, but its free-form nature and fluctuating media standards makes it a difficult platform to deliver a rich experience. How do create a design when your readers might have a wide range of screen sizes, browser technologies, or plug-ins? The difference between the experience of the New York Times iPhone App and their mobile web page highlights this difference.

One thing that Apple can bring to the table is a unified electronic multimedia publication format that has a built-in model for generating revenue, something which has eluded publishers in the digital age.

But one strategy that is pervasive throughout Apple’s product line is the aversion to devices that perform only a single task. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle, the tablet will not be exclusively a reader. Instead, what I think we’ll see is essentially a larger version of the iPhone: a (relatively) full sized, touch-based portable computer.

Bottom-line predictions:

10 inch touchscreen, LCD (not AMOLED)
iPhone OS – ability to run existing apps and new apps designed for the larger screen
Built-in 3G and WiFi
Built-in front-facing camera, capable of video chat
Some sort of stand, either built-in (e.g. a kickstand) or small and portable as an accessory
Screen-based keyboard like iPhone with option for external keyboard
SD card slot (would allow photo viewing and external storage)
Versions of iLife and iWork optimized for tablet
This will be marketed as redefining what the portable computer should be – most people will not need a “full” computer except for limited tasks

The item I’m least confident about is the SD card slot, but it could make a lot of sense for integrating in with existing computers.

A Massachusetts Miracle?

Tomorrow marks the special election for senate in Massachusetts. After a rather low-key primary, Martha Coakley handily won the Democratic primary. Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, essential went unnoticed until recent polls showed him narrowing Coakley’s once 20-30% margin to single digits. These trends have continued and any Coakley lead in the polls has completely evaporated. in fact, nearly all recent polls have Brown ahead by a few points (a key piece of data will be Rasmusssen’s poll later today).

What happened?

First of all, Coakley has been a decidedly unexciting candidate. The near absence of a primary battle and the fact that she’s been seen as taking the seat for granted have significantly hurt her ability to define herself in any meaningful way. Brown, in contrast, has painted himself as the anti-establishment candidate – indeed, it looks like he’s capturing a decent portion of Obama voters, who were no doubt anti-establishment in ’08. While Coakley’s recent ads have focused on trying to attack Brown, Brown has sent out of positive message, showing him traveling around Boston, advocating “more jobs and lower taxes.” Whether Brown has any strategy to deliver on this is somewhat immaterial at this point – the key is that it’s a message that resonates strongly when unemployment is high and after the sales tax in Massachusetts just went up.

It’s also been helped that most people really have a very limited notion of what “ObamaCare” represents. This is the administration’s problem: unless people have a clear message to hear, the opposition can easily step in to sow enough doubt to raise concerns – and by “opposition”, I mean both those who want more sweeping change (the progressive wing of the Democratic party) and those who prefer more restricted changes (Republicans). Polls seem to show there is overall support for the bills in Massachusetts, but the support is soft, and health care reform support is unlikely to drum up significant Democratic turnout. Brown strategy has also taken advantage of the largely unpopular negotiations within the Democratic party (e.g. with Senator Bill Nelson), arguing that he supports reform, but wants discussions brought out into the open.

While the outcome of this election remains unclear, I think there’s a greater than 50% chance that Brown will pull this out. What the Democrats do with both the health care bill and future bills with a sub-supermajority senate will determine how they perform in the 2010 elections. The supermajority may, in retrospect, turn out to be one of the worst things to happen to the Democrats in a long time.

Apple’s emerging plan

Apple’s scheduled to make some announcements later this month (most rumors have zeroed in on the 27th), and there is much excitement around the potential release of a new tablet platform (the “iSlate”). However, there’s also expected to be an announcement of a new version of the iPhone OS (4.0). Apple’s facing increasing pressure from Google and their Android platform and need to step up their game to stay ahead. As usual, no one really knows what they have planned, but there are some clues. I think Apple is going to try to cut in to Google’s game in a big way. Here’s the evidence:

Anyone who has used Google Maps knows that it’s not perfect and can sometimes be frustratingly wrong, particularly when searching for business. Apple purchased a map company called Placebase back in July. Expect to see a new version of the maps application NOT driven by Google maps. Location-based advertising is a huge market, and Apple is not going let themselves become a feeder for Google’s business.

Apple also recently purchased Quattro Wireless, a mobile advertising company – I’m sure also not a coincidence. Apple currently offers developers two options for app development: sell the app for a price via the app store, and Apple will give you 70% of the profit, or sell it for free and neither the developer nor Apple makes any money. Here’s a new potential option: include some code in your app and Apple will take care of an ad-based model, sell your app for free in the app store, and you split the profits with Apple.

This model could also work (and, indeed, may work better) for the tablet, where screen real estate will be more plentiful.

What about search, Google’s core service? What if Apple’s tablet offered a search restricted to the most useful sources: news outlets and magazines that also happened to deliver their material via Apple’s new platform? That would be a strong incentive to participate.

The Google Phone: A tactic without a strategy

As you may have heard, Google had a big press conference today to launch what has become known as “the Google phone” – a.k.a. the Nexus One.

During the McCain/Obama debates, there was some discussion of the difference between a tactic and a strategy. If Google has a strategy behind their latest tactic, I don’t get it.

It’s not clear what exactly the Nexus One is supposed to be. Google’s model with Android platform has been to develop the software and give it away for free to handset makers, who use it to make devices like the popular Motorola Droid. Business model? Not clear, but one idea is that it drives use of Google’s services, which can in turn drive profit through add revenue.

Well maybe that wasn’t enough, because now they’re selling the Nexus One directly to customers. But didn’t they say they weren’t going to make their own phone? Wouldn’t this anger other Android makers like Motorola?

Google is quick to say that the handset itself is made by HTC. So what exactly is the special role Google is taking here? They had a big press conference today focused on its launch…will they do they same for other companies each time a new Android handset is launched? That’s a rhetorical question – they haven’t and the won’t.

It makes the whole point of today’s press conference, and Google’s overall Android strategy, all the more confusing. My take: they are making this up as they go along, and there’s no adult supervision driving the ship here.