The Book : Why, What, When and How
Editor: Charles Parnot first published this piece a year ago, long before the iPad was announced. Apart from the price, just about everything he said became a reality. So on the morning that Charles can finally pre-order his beloved Book, we thought it would be good to give the article a second run, for posterity's sake (...and a good laugh).
Author: Charles Parnot
The rumor mill has been running at higher speed recently around a supposedly coming-real-soon Apple's netbook. As a geeky technology-dreamer scientist, I have been wishing for a long time that Apple would finally make a tablet-format iPhone that could run Mac OS X on a touch screen. I probably could not afford it, but I would definitely play with it at the Apple Store. Up until today, I had been very dimsissive of these rumors, mainly on the basis that Apple does not cater to the geeks anymore, and does not enter low-margin markets. But I just changed my mind 2 weeks ago! Here is why...
Supposedly, netbooks are very successful because:
- they are cheap
- they are small
- but they still offer most of the functionality that everybody needs, like email, web browsing, and maybe a few light-weight apps for work or for fun
The idea that low prices are the reason for the success of netbooks is a bit misleading and the argument gets more attention than it deserves because of the economic downturn. The low prices have certainly fueled the sales, but the small form factor is a feature in itself, that many people are utlimately willing to pay for (like the iPod nano). As this new market grows, there will be room for different price levels, with the differentiation coming from other aspects like design and usability. This is exactly how Apple likes to position itself against the competition.
The combination of reasons 2 and 3 is simply a consequence of the incredible pace at which computing power and storage has been progressing for the last 50 years. The technology has finally passed a threshold. These machines are technically feasible at a reasonable price. Very quickly, this novelty is becoming the norm. Very soon, this will be the only 'laptop' that most people will consider buying. After all, you don't need a professional computer with all the bells and whistles if you "just need to read email, surf the web, and run a couple of apps". Just like you don't need a Formula 1 to drive your kids to school.
However, there might a 4th untold reason that consumers are attracted to netbooks. I think many people will buy a netbook because they would somehow expect it will be easy to use. It's small, it's cheap, hence it's dumbed-down. If you buy a minivan to drive your kids to school, you don't expect to have to deal with the steering wheel of a Formula 1. But the sad truth is that Windows or Ubuntu are bringing an even worse user experience to netbooks than to their larger siblings, because these OSes were designed for larger screens. The problem is the software. Again, this is where Apple can shine.
Which button would you rather press?
In fact, I will go one step further. The emergence of netbooks is the perfect occasion to redefine the user interface of computers. Twenty-five years ago, Apple established a UI paradigm where menus and windows played a central role. Nothing has really changed since then. If anything, computers have become more difficult to use. Years of practice have helped most users get by, but a computer remains a capricious black box, even when it runs Mac OS X. A big innovative leap is needed. Of course, Apple has already figured out an incredibly intuitive user interface, where touch and animations play a central role, and that's the iPhone. After a few minutes, you just "get it". I think this is what consumer want: they walk in the store, they press the start button, they don't need a manual, they buy the machine. It Just Works, for the consumer... and for Apple.
Apple's target is the consumer market at large, with a focus on innovation, simplicity and usability. Apple will not make a small computer, with a small screen and a small keyboard, that simply runs Mac OS X. No, Apple will reinvent the netbook (and change that horrible horrible name), just like it did reinvent the smart phone 2 years ago. And in one big splash, Apple will also put an end to an old UI paradigm that they themselves established 25 years ago, and replace it with a fresh new one.
What will Apple's netbook be like?
First, the name.... I should probably let Apple work on that, but 'netbook' sounds so awful that I need a name right now. And that will be the Book.
[In case the character before the word 'Book' is all garbled on your screen, that's the Apple character, like in TV]
The Book would be a big iPhone, with a touch screen, and would run a beefed-up version of the iPhone OS or, depending how you look at it, a stripped-down version of Snow Leopard, specifically designed for that form factor. All that Apple has learned with the iPhone will now be applied to a larger device, with some more adjustements to take advantage of the screen estate. The UI paradigm will be closer to the iPhone than the Mac, with a strong emphasis on the touch interaction, no menu bar, no Finder, no messy folders and files to take care of, and some kind of home screen like the iPhone. Tight integration with Mobile Me. Maybe some inspiration from the TV OS. Third-party applications will have to be installed via the App Store, but they will not be simply the same as the iPhone apps (developers will choose to develop for both platforms, or for only one). Now, the finishing touch: just imagine I am waving my hands in the air to show you all the details while crossing my fingers and chanting "copy and paste", and there, you have it.
The hardware: an 8-10 inch touch screen, 150-200 ppi, no keyboard, bluetooth, wifi, GPS, whatever chip to connect to cellular networks (but no phone), 64 GB SSD, speakers, built-in iSight and mike, maybe even a camera. Not sure where the start button will be as it would be a bit lonely at the bottom of the screen (maybe in the back!).
Introductory price: $999.
Realistically (yes, I have been very realistic so far), I doubt Apple would release the Book for the 2009 holiday season. They need to get Snow Leopard out of the door. They are still quite busy with the iPhone. Apple has already tried stretching their capacities in the recent past, and might be a bit more prudent this time.They might also need to get the developers informed about it first. Alternatively, they could decide to take the iPhone 1.0 approach, with only Apple applications in the first iteration (they would then need to include iWork).
Thus, they might announce the Book at WWDC 2010 to get the developers in, and release it 3 months later, for the 2010 holiday season. Luckily, by then, nobody will remember my post.
There are still a lot of problems with that plan, for which I don't have very good answers:
How about application developers? Will they have to write 3 versions of their apps, for the Mac, the iPhone, and now the Book? Yes. If they want. Just like they can decide to only write for the Mac, only for the iPhone, or for both. The iPhone has shown that porting an app from the Mac to the iPhone is probably easier than porting it from Windows, but it is still a lot of work. Unfortunately, Apple could not make it as simple as the Intel switch, because the screen of an iPhone is very different from the Mac and the UI has to be radically changed. The same will be true of the Book. The screen size will be significantly larger than the iPhone and significantly smaller than a MacBook, thus the UI will need to be adapted. There is no way around it. But I think developers will be very happy to work on it if that just means the market they are selling to is growing like weed.
How about the keyboard? That's a tough one. I don't think Apple can reasonably put a physical keyboard on those things and keep the touch aspect with a simple and slick design. But the iPhone keyboard may not work that well for that form factor and could show its limitations. Maybe Apple has some other tricks up its sleeve? I would also predict they will allow external keyboard via Bluetooth.
How about USB/other ports? Well, not sure how that fits in the picture. In my opinion: forget about peripherals.
How about syncing and backup? The iPhone works really well as an extension of your computer (Mac or PC) and could not live without it. What about the Book? It supposedly replaces your computer, so syncing is not applicable, but what are you going to do for backups? Well, in this distant hypothetical future, MobileMe could handle it, and that would bring a lot of recurrent revenue to Apple. Probably they should include the first year of subscription in the sale price. And support for Time Capsule backups?
Subsidized?? ATT?? Yes, I know, it sounds horrible, but ubiquitous connectivity is key, and for now, cell phone carriers are the gatekeepers. And well, it seems Apple gets a good share of that revenue too.