Will the tablet succeed?

Niemann on Friday, 22 January 2010. Posted in Opinion

Next week we will be introduced to a new product from Apple.  This product will be the long rumored tablet-device which Steve Jobs has been intimately involved with for the past couple of years.  I don't care what the device is called (my money is with iPad at this point), what I do care about it is what the device can do for me.  I'm a gamer; so why should I care?


The iPhone Effect


You cannot deny the monumental impact that the iPhone / iPod Touch platform has had on the world of gadgets.  In two years, the device has become (just as the iPod before it) the standard for nearly every cellular device, PDA, and media player.  When the device was initially introduced I saw very little gaming potential for it, and the reasons were plenty.

First, no physical buttons.  Nintendo, with the wildly popular Wii, has shown that there is a strong market for alternative input devices in gaming.  Nintendo challenged developers to use their technology, and many developers succeeded (some also failed).  Unfortunately with the iPhone, we are limited to only two major forms of input.  The first is a very small multi-touch screen, and the second was a 3-axis accelerometer.  The multi-touch screen allowed infinite number of on-screen control pads, but without any sort of physical response.  Press a button, and until you see a reaction on screen you don't know if you've missed the button entirely.  And the great short-coming of the 3-axis accelerameter (a similar device to Nintendo's Wiimote) is that when you move the iPhone, you end up moving the screen as well.  So much for golf and tennis games on the iPhone.

Second, no third-party development.  It seems like bizarre idea today, with the incredible success of the App Store.  But when the device was first introduced there was no App Store.  Development was limited to only a select list of developers.  Luckily Apple remedied this problem within the first year.

Third, competition.  This is simple; if I wanted to buy a portable gaming system I bought a Playstation Portable (PSP) or a Nintendo DS.  No one thought of the iPhone as a competitive game system.  There were articles written about its potential as a gaming system, but initially the device was a glorified PDA.  Microsoft for years had been promoting their Windows Mobile platform, which had lots of games, emulators, and general applications for it, but no one considered buying one of those devices over a PSP or DS for a gaming system.

So with these glaring short-comings, how did the iPhone become such a powerful gaming platform.  It goes like this...

In 2007 the NPD Group released a study called Expanding the Games Market, in this report we were introduced to the staggering fact that "63% of the US population is playing games regularly".  This shows the obvious trend (which we all already knew) that video games are no longer just for teenagers, geeks, and hardcore gamers; most of the population of the US are regular gamers just as movie and television watchers (both forms of media have extremely broad demographics).  So we start off with a population where most of the people are gaming.

The next step is to introduce a device to this population which has a near universal purpose; the iPhone.  In 2007, CTIA released a report declaring that more than 82% of Americans now own cell phones.  It is more difficult to estimate the number of people who own iPods in 2007 (estimates range from 20% to over 70%), but it's safe to assume that there is a vast majority of people who own portable media devices even in 2007.  Package these features under a name everyone already recognizes Apple's iPod Phone becomes the iPhone; and now you have estimates saying that as much as 30% of the US will own an iPhone.

Now a lot of people own an iPhone and a lot of people are gamers; Apple releases the iPhone SDK and suddenly there are literally thousands of games for the iPhone platform.  Just like the PC gaming market, if there are enough products available some of the will be good (even if the vast majority are terrible).  This process may seem obvious, but it is certainly something few predicted.

However, the iPhone does not come close to satisfying the hardcore gamers among us.  The market is very much like the flash-based games online, there are some very addictive games and some truly entertaining ones, but there are no high-profile games for hardcore gamers.  The short-comings of the input are far too great.  Making a Halo, Modern Warfare, Burnout, Mario, or Gran Turismo risks soiling great names because of difficult control schemes.

The Tablet's Success as a Gaming Platform

There are a number of things the tablet must be able to do to succeed as a gaming platform.  It must overcome the lack of a physical interface and it must have a universal purpose.

We have seen a number of patents from Apple exploring the need to some sort of physical response to input.  Probably the most promising are the patents relating to tactile feedback on the touchscreen keyboard.  The patents surfaced in 2005 and are filed by Wayne Westerman, the founder of FingerWorks which Apple acquired in 2005.  Apple must develop some way to emulate the feeling of a real keyboard or control on the surface of their device.  Otherwise gaming will always be hindered.

However, with that said, a larger screen surface dramatically improves one's ability to use the touch surface (even without haptic feedback).  The reason is simple, larger buttons will make it easier to ensure the user's intention is fulfilled by the application.  Of course as the device grows in size, the practicality of it as a handheld gaming system shrinks.  Anyone with a flatscreen LCD in front of them can try holding it the way you hold and iPhone and iPod Touch, and you will quickly realize the impracticalities of large screen models.  Especially trying to get your thumbs and fingers comfortable holding a heavy, large, flat object.

Apple would also need to produce a device with a universal purpose.  This becomes more challenging for the tablet device than it was for the iPhone for a simple reason; in 2007 more than 80% of the population already owned a cell phone, in 2009 less than 1% of the population owns a tablet (I'm including ebook readers).  We've seen a number of mockups showing the various potential applications for the tablet.  From the IKEA catalog toSports Illustrated, we've heard rumors of magazines and academic books ready to go on the tablet.

While this might seem 'cool', it wouldn't justify a $1000 price tag.  I would certainly not pay $1000 for an interactive IKEA catalog, animated Sports Illustrated, or more animated academic books.

What the tablet needs to be...

Everything above was written to set the stage for what the tablet needs to be to convince me (yeah, I'm that selfish) to buy an Apple tablet.  I own a Mac Pro, a MacBook Pro, and an iPhone; this device has to fit into my lineup of devices.  It shouldn't just be a large iPhone and can't be a scaled down MacBook.  The device must be something on it's own.

And here's what it needs to be.  First, it needs to be Jef Raskin's "information appliance".  In many ways the iPhone already is, but it has it's limits (mostly because of screen size).  For instance, it is difficult to read a comic book on your iPhone, you constantly scroll around searching for what's next.  Reading books could be improved on as anyone who has the Classics or Kindle app where there are approximately one-fourth as many words per page as a normal book.  This device needs to integrate so seamlessly with your life that you don't even notice it's an Apple device; it should be just like pulling a book off the shelf, starting up your GPS, or pulling your iPod out of your pocket.  For more information about this, check out Jesus Diaz's excellent article at Gizmodo.

It needs to be incrementally better hardware than the iPhone 3GS.  This is simple; better graphics and a faster processor.  Apple and many developers have done amazing things with the iPhone 3GS and latest iPod Touch hardware, but there is a lot of unlocked potential.  Even over the past three months or so we have seen incredible advancements in games for the iPhone (Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Call of Duty: ZombiesN.O.V.A.).  Event thought the hardware was introduced last summer, we have seen games improve steadily since as more and more developers take advantage of Apple's improvements.  The tablet needs to set this bar high enough that developers have the freedom to create impressive games throughout the first year of the tablet's existence.

Apple must do something revolutionary with the input.  A giant on-screen keyboard will not work on the tablet, it's already hard enough on the iPhone (luckily the iPhone is competing with super-small physical keyboards, T9, and even worse on-screen keyboards).  This is by far the biggest question mark about Apple's announcement next wednesday.  Will there be haptic feedback?  Is Apple's famous patent on a specialized haptic screen a reality?  Are recent reports about a touch-sensitive back surface a reality?  Will Apple even improve the input in any way?  I guess we will see on Wednesday.

If Apple releases a 9" iPhone with improved hardware and input means; I will buy one for $1000 (or less hopefully).


This article rambled on quite a bit, but it does cover a lot of the market's current predictions and known facts about the upcoming announcement from Apple.  Of course, while I can ramble on about the device it hardly means I have any answers...maybe you do; comment below.

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