Apple Tablet: Content Will Be Key

On January 27, Apple is holding an event to unveil its "latest creation," which is expected to be a 10-inch touchscreen tablet. Apple's rumored device has been generating a lot of buzz and excitement, but it's not clear yet whether tablet excitement -- assuming that Apple really is unveiling a tablet, of course -- will turn into tablet dollars at the cash register.

Apple tablet

One factor not working in Apple's favor is that tablet devices have never proven to be successful with paying customers. Ken Delaney, an analyst at Gartner, recently told Bloomberg that tablet computers only account for one percent of the PC market despite being around since the 1990s. Granted, Apple's device may look more like a large iPod Touch than the traditional tablet laptop with a swivel screen, but even so Apple will need more than just flashy hardware to make its tablet product successful.

Perhaps more than any other product the company has produced, the rumored tablet will need an ecosystem of compelling content to convince people they want to buy this device. But what would that look like?

iTunes LP and iTunes Extra

The most obvious use for a tablet would be for playing back music and video sold through the iTunes store. Just like your laptop, iPod, or iPhone, an Apple tablet would offer a way to watch movies and television shows and listen to music. The device may also convince people to buy albums with the iTunes LP feature, and movies with iTunes Extras, the DVD-like special features included with movies downloaded from Apple.

Applications

It's not clear yet what kind of an operating system Apple's latest creation will have. If it runs a standard version of OS X then the rumored tablet will run the same computer programs your Mac does, but if the device is running the iPhone OS that opens up Apple's wide catalog of third-party iPhone applications available through the iTunes Store.

Games

Most iPod Touch and iPhone video games are controlled by the use of an accelerometer where you tip the device to one side or the other to manipulate on-screen movements. That may be a relatively easy thing to do on a handheld device with the flick of the wrist, but a 10-inch tablet would require you to grip the device with both hands much like you would with a steering wheel, which may not be as compelling for gaming. But there are some games, such as Madden NFL 10, that make use of on-screen controls that could be more interesting, and two-player games like Touch Hockey: FS5 would be far easier to play on a bigger screen. Of course, putting iPhone games on the tablet assumes the device would be running the iPhone OS and not Mac OS X.

Books

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday morning that Apple is in talks with Harper Collins and other publishers to bring e-books to the rumored tablet device. But unlike books on the Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook, or any of the numerous e-readers announced at CES, books on Apple's tablet may have interactive features including video, interviews and social networking. That may be a compelling format for a children's book--imagine Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are with embedded clips from the movie--or business-oriented books that could benefit from interactive illustrations or news video, but do you really need interactivity when reading fiction? By my estimation you'd lose more than you'd gain reading works by John Steinbeck, Philip Roth, or Jonathan Safran Foer with interactive features.

Mags and Rags

There's been a lot of buzz ever since Sports Illustrated unveiled its electronic magazine concept, and now there's more news that The New York Times' long-awaited second attempt at a paywall may be timed with Apple's product announcement next week.

Many other companies are also considering or working on new digital formats including Time Inc., News Corp., and Hearst. But there's a big question mark hanging over the issue of whether people would be willing to pay for online content again.

About Those Paint Splotches...

A rumor out yesterday, and first reported by Fox News, says that Apple may also be introducing new versions of iLife and a preview of iPhone OS 4.0. Is it possible that Apple's new device will have some kind of artistic bent to it, as the company's event invitation suggests? Could Apple's new device be ideal for using iMovie, iPhoto or iWeb in new and interesting ways? Only a few days until we know for sure.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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