And what if Apple makes a good Etch-a-Sketch?

This morning, TR's resident Mac blogger Jason Fox posted a somewhat pessimistic piece about that tablet device Apple is supposed to launch next year. In the post, Jason rightfully questioned the utility of a slab of aluminum (or plastic) with a 10" touch-screen and otherwise unremarkable hardware—pretty much what the Mac rumor mill has been describing.

The prospect of such a device doesn't excite me much, either. That said, history also tells me that assessment is a little premature. If I were a betting man, I'd say we may all find ourselves pleasantly surprised next year after Apple introduces a tablet-like product that's simultaneously well-thought-out, compelling, and... still overpriced. (Hey, Steve Jobs likes his margins.)

The fact that I'm writing this post using Firefox on my Windows Vista-powered PC should rule me out as an Apple fanboy. So, why am I so hopeful? Let me show you some choice quotes from the months leading up to the iPhone's original unveiling in January 2007:

  • "Apple cell phone is real and ready for production - analyst" - September 5, 2006. Quote from an American Technology Research analyst:
    Clearly, we would like to share more detail as we have conducted extensive work on the product pipeline, but for now, here is what we will convey . . . The design will be an iPod nano-like candy bar form factor and come in three colors (we are not certain of the exact colors but we suspect black, white and platinum, similar to Apple's current color scheme of iPods and Macs).
  • "Prudential: Apple to release two iPhone models, one with WiFi" - October 16, 2006. Quote from a Prudential Equity Group analyst:
    Our checks indicate that Apple will produce these phones in limited quantities initially as a market test vehicle. . . . Moreover, while our checks indicate that production of Apple's new wide screen video iPod will begin in the [December quarter], we do not expect the product to be released until early next year.
  • "Palm CEO brushes off Apple cell phone threat" - November 22, 2006. Quote from Palm CEO Ed Colligan:
    Colligan reportedly "laughed off the idea" that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company would experience any immediate success in delivering a device to the fastidious smart phone market.

    "We've learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,'' he said. "PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in.''

  • "Prudential: iPhone to sport click wheel; video iPod by Q2" - December 5, 2006. Quote from that same Prudential analyst:
    In an extensive research note released to clients earlier this week, Prudential analyst Jesse Tortora said the first and slimmer of Apple's initial two cell phone models will look like an iPod with a small screen and a click wheel interface. . . . Tortora said the iPhone device, which he calls a "slim music phone," will pack camera functionality and be GSM/GPRS network compatible. Meanwhile, he said Apple is also working on a smart phone device with a larger OLED-based display and a sliding keyboard that will be WCDMA compatible to allow for higher bandwidth.

So, even shortly before Macworld 2007, folks were still expecting a small candy-bar phone with a click wheel, which would be out in small quantities as a market test vehicle. Oh, and everybody was still excited about the prospect of a "wide screen video iPod." Boy, did things turn out differently.

We're now seeing a similar tide of reports, many echoing each other, that describe the Apple tablet as something relatively unappealing. Maybe these reports are totally right. Or perhaps Apple simply keeps things under too tight a lid for precise, reliable information to slip out before the eve of the launch. The company might even be engaging in active misinformation, which might help it keep competitors (like Palm) unaware.

We should also remember that Apple has been extremely selective about the products it introduces, especially in recent years. Go compare the firm's hardware lineup to Dell's or HP's, and then tell me with a straight face Apple would be careless enough to launch a device without a clear target market—or at least an effective enough marketing campaign to create one. Unless Jobs' health problems have clouded his judgment, I would sooner expect him to cancel an unappealing Mac tablet altogether than to release it and hope for the best.

In any case, I think it's probably too early to draw any conclusions. It's still fun to speculate about what Apple could really be cooking up, though.

Were I to hazard a guess, I'd say the company is developing a streamlined netbook that lacks the shortcomings it has identified in current devices—"cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and [a poor] consumer experience," to quote Tim Cook.

Apple may indeed go with a lone touch screen to avoid the cramped keyboard problem in a tight form factor. However, I'd expect something slightly larger (or at least higher-resolution) than current 10.1" netbook displays, a full-featured operating system, and a totally sweet multi-touch software interface to tie it all together. As for the internals, considering the performance and compatibility limitations of today's ARM processors, I'd expect Apple to select an x86 CPU—perhaps simply the next-gen Atom system-on-a-chip, which is also supposed to come out early next year.

Price this thing at, say, $599, and I could definitely see folks choose it over the confusing cornucopia of netbooks floating around the market. With a good enough display, it might even work as a stay-at-home Kindle tied to an iTunes book store.

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