What could Apple’s ‘Media Pad’ be?

The rumor mill is buzzing with evidence that Apple will soon release two new wireless devices, what amounts to an iPhone micro and an iPod touch macro. It’s clear that the larger iPod touch-like device will not be a cellular device, though it may include the 3G cellular wireless internet technology. I have a specific interest in a tablet-like device whose screen is exactly 7.5″ x 10″. Here’s why.

The problem is that it’s nearly 2010. I seem to recall in the 90s being promised a future full of Jetsons-like gadgets. We are not supposed to have to walk from point A to point B but have those belt things you see at the airport. Cars should be flying by 2010. (Dogs should be talking?) And our offices were guaranteed to be paperless by now! We are quite far from the paperless office, specifically, and I want the Apple’s iPod touch macro to be a media pad that helps fill this gap. What will it need to do to succeed?

1. LED-backlit high resolution LCD: 7.5″ x 10″. It’s the size of a sheet of paper, minus the margins. Small form factor but all screen. And readable.

2. One USB port, 802.11n, bluetooth, mini-DisplayPort, and optional wireless 3G. This is the bare essentials for ports. One USB port for universal connectivity. 802.11n for fast internet access. Bluetooth for connecting external keyboard and mouse if desired (someone will make a kickstand for this simple device). Mini-DisplayPort so it can give presentations. And finally, I say optional wireless 3G because I have absolutely zero intention of buying something that requires a monthly service contract. I simply don’t want it.

3. 8 GB solid state drive. Enough space for applications and some music, perhaps. No moving parts, please.

4. Touch gesture controlled but with stylus input. While it’s clear that multitouch is the future of a specialized device like this, the stylus input will be key, though auxiliary. The stylus will be crucial for utilizing the Ink Well software already part of Mac OS X.

5. Operating System. It’s clear that this device will have to run some variant of Mac OS X. As I see it, Apple have 3 options for an operating system. They can go with the iPod touch/iPhone model of downloading apps from a controlled source (iTunes store). They can go with the full Mac OS X model and open the device up to any software on OS X. Or they can go the Microsoft route and brand yet another version of OS X with ambiguous “Media Center” differences and confuse branding on their stellar OS. To me, the full OS X model is the way to go here. The primary reason for this is users should be able to run all of the wonderful software available to OS X currently, without limitation. Merging contents of the iTunes store will make that space confusing, as apps compatible with the iPhone/iPod touch will likely not be compatible (at first) with the new media pad device. Nevertheless, I can completely see Apple erring on the side of control in this case, for at least the perceived reason of protecting the 3G network from malicious programs. Of course, as with all attempts at DRM type control, this can and will be circumvented. Why confuse the space unnecessarily for marginal benefits?

6. Software – PDF Reader Example. There is one piece of software that I’m going to focus on, in order to give an idea of what such a media pad device can accomplish. It’s a simple PDF reader, on its face. PDFKit driven, the model in my mind here is Skim.app, a freely available program that takes full advantage of PDFKit’s annotation and note-taking capabilities. Consider being able to underline, write notes, and mark up PDFs on the go in a digital format, where your notes are automatically converted into text and your underlining/highlighting is automatically converted into digital underlines. Saving this file will make all notes transportable to other devices or printable. Furthermore, one can zoom text effortlessly with the multitouch features already demonstrated in multitouch trackpads on Apple laptops and on the iPod touch/iPhone. To be able to keep a library of PDFs on this device will solve the problem for paper that the mp3 player solved for music: while a CD player requires carrying CDs and cumbersome switching, the mp3 player can now have dozens or hundreds of albums in a convenient form factor. The Media Pad device will allow us to become more mobile with more documents.

7. A few other issues. Give us a thin bezel, please. Battery life should be reasonable. The device should be thin. While a sync feature would be in line with the iPod touch model, I still prefer a full on OS X device model. Perhaps there could be a compromise here. It’s also clear that this device will require its own special developer tools to take advantage of stylus transduction and multitouch interaction. Apple will do well on this, if their past is any indication. Finally, I think Apple needs to seriously look at their anti-aliasing to make this device very readable on screen. e-Paper is not the solution, until refresh rates and color are both substantially improved; however, e-Paper is very readable.

I’ve been thinking about a device like this to solve many of my problems as a scientist whose life of reading revolves largely around the PDF article. I suspect that other professions also could use something like this, especially in the software model in which any arbitrary application can be created to take advantage of this device.

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