Rumors about a tablet computer from Apple predate the iPhone. There's a good chance that those rumors are about to become reality. The consensus in the tech world is that Apple will announce a new tablet-like device later this month. (Current rumors point to a January 27th announcement, with the device itself available in March.)
That's about all the tech world agrees on at this point, because Apple's legendary secrecy has kept most of the important details from leaking out. Of course, that hasn't stopped analysts from prematurely declaring the unknown product a complete failure (like Apple's Newton) or a runaway success (like Apple's iPhone).
I figured I'd weigh in with my carefully considered predictions.
BJ's Predictions for Apple's New Product
1. What is it? The elevator pitch for this product is a larger version of the iPod Touch, or a supercharged version of Amazon's Kindle. Either way, it'll be comparable in size to current ebook readers, but with a full color touchscreen. It will not be a netbook, and it will not duplicate all the functions of a laptop.
2. It won't be called a Tablet. I don't know what it'll be called (some rumors suggest "iSlate"), but it definitely won't be called the iTablet or anything similar. Tablet computers have been out on the market for years, without much success, and Apple won't be too eager to have their "revolutionary" new product linked to a failed category.
3. It'll cost more than $400; it'll cost less than $1,000. The most expensive iPod is $399, and the cheapest MacBook is $999. The new device won't be cheaper than an iPod, nor will it be more expensive than one of their own laptops. For the sake of comparison, the Amazon Kindle is $259 -- the new Apple product will cost twice as much (or more), but it'll do far more than twice as many things as a Kindle.
4. It won't require a cellular plan. Like nearly all of Apple's products, it will come with built-in WiFi -- but it won't require a cellular plan. There may be limited cellular access built in, so it can be used to browse and purchase books on the go to compete with current ebook readers that have this feature.
A full cellular data plan may be available at an extra charge for those who want it, but it won't be required.
5. It will connect to iTunes and run apps. iTunes is the center of Apple's digital hub strategy, and the new product will tie into it just like all the iPods and iPhones. There will be some way to run current iPhone apps, either scaled to fit the larger screen, or running as smaller, iPhone-sized widgets. That won't be a perfect solution, but app developers will be able to rewrite their programs so they scale properly between the new product and iPhones.
I don't expect the new product to run traditional Mac OS X programs that run on MacBooks and iMacs.
6. The tech media will complain. The tech media will quickly list all the things that are wrong with it -- it's too expensive, there isn't enough memory, the battery should be removable, the screen is too fragile, the color screen hurts the eyes when reading, etc. Their criticisms will mostly be true, but they miss the point -- it'll sell like hotcakes anyway, and continue to improve year after year.
7. By the end of the year, it'll dominate its market. Whether you classify it as an ebook (competing with Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader, and the Barnes & Noble Nook), or create an entirely new category for it, the new Apple product will be the market leader in its segment by the end of 2010.
So those are my predictions. I look forward to learning the truth later this month, so I can come back to this post and see how wrong I was.