CES 2010: Apple, Microsoft And Others' Slate (i.e. Tablet); An Inglorious Fate Or Just Late?
One of a series of planned posts from the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show…
Speaking of Apple…although the company’s not here (at least from a show floor presence standpoint), nor is it announcing anything this week (at least to the best of my knowledge), its influence is still heavily felt at CES. That’s because enduring (and perhaps intentionally leaked) rumors, backed up by compelling albeit circumstantial evidence, suggest that the company is poised to unveil its first tablet form factor system later this month. And coincidentally (or likely not), numerous slate (i.e. tablet) form factor systems are being shown here at CES by various silicon, software and systems vendors.
Take Microsoft. Widespread blogosphere speculation in the days leading up to Steve Ballmer’s keynote Wednesday night indicated that the company might unveil an early prototype of its Courier concept system, which Gizmodo first caught wind of last fall. What Ballmer ended up demonstrating wasn’t Courier, but prototypes from Archos, Hewlett-Packard and Pegatron running full-blown (albeit touch interface-enabled) versions of Windows 7. As such, they were the latest iterations of Microsoft’s longstanding tablet vision, stretching all the way back to the WinPad project of the early 1990s (in which I personally participated, in my former professional life) and most recently explored in the Origami ultra-mobile PC experiment.
However, a knowledgeable (and anonymous) contact I spoke with the other day assures me that Courier is indeed still under development within Microsoft. In fact, this person said that Microsoft initially seriously considered porting the necessary subset of Windows 7 to ARM but eventually decided to stick with Intel’s Atom CPU. It’s unclear whether or not Microsoft’s ultimate aspiration is to sell branded hardware itself (as with Zune and the Xbox 360) or to use Courier as a reference design for its hardware partners. But Microsoft’s heavy hardware hand in the project is intriguing. And the vision here is apparently for a more focused implementation than one which a full-blown Windows 7 platform would engender. Think OneNote, for example, along with functions such as the Internet Explorer-derived touchscreen web browsing built into Zune, audio and video streamed playback both directly from the Internet and acting as a Media Center Extender, Ebook viewing (Microsoft Reader is around a decade old at this point, after all), etc.
Similarly, I suspect that should the mythical Apple iSlate (or whatever it ends up being called) come to fruition, it’ll be derived from the iPhone and iPod touch platform versus acting as some sort of a touch-augmented MacBook. As such, it’ll obtain its capabilities (beyond those built into it from the start) from Apple’s lucrative App Store. Ebook reading will be a highly touted feature, as will be web browsing, and large-screen gaming and video playback. Here are a few other prognostications:
- It’ll run an ARM architecture CPU versus Intel’s Atom or some other x86 proliferation. Specifically, I suspect it’ll act as the first implementation platform for the processor design team that Apple acquired when it purchased P.A. Semi almost two years back. Recall that although that team had recently been doing PowerPC work, it had a strong ARM heritage at DEC (which became Intel’s StrongARM line).
- Speaking of Intel, you should anticipate that the iSlate will employ a flash memory-based solid-state drive instead of a magnetic hard drive. SSDs have been offered as options on various MacBook family members for several years now; this’ll be the first time that a large-screen device from Apple is SSD-only. But the usage model for a tablet computer is inherently incompatible with that of a fragile HDD. And anyway, native storage sizes will be modest, since the iSlate will access much of its data from elsewhere over LAN and WAN ‘clouds’ in a streamed-playback fashion.
- What of connectivity? At minimum, the iSlate will contain 802.11n and Bluetooth capabilities, the latter creating interesting potential scenarios for tethering to iPhones. Will it also offer a built-in cellular data subsystem as with the Kindle and other eBook readers, smartbooks, etc? And if so, which technology will it leverage; GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile) and/or CDMA (Sprint, Verizon)? Apple’s relationship with AT&T in the United States still seems solid, at least on the surface, but will AT&T’s network completely crumble under the weight of yet another Apple widget? Regardless, it’s too soon for LTE, and WiMAX isn’t sufficiently pervasive to justify the added BOM cost.
- Finally we turn to the screen. Size is something I’m not going to prognosticate on; the bigger the real estate, the more meaningful the overall user experience, but also the higher the resultant price tag and the larger the ensuing form factor. But even a relatively modest 7" diagonal size would not be cost-effective nor deliver sufficient operating life if implemented using OLED technology. Instead, anticipate a LED-backlit LCD screen, leveraging the high-volume efficiencies of scale derived from several years’ worth of netbook computer shipments.