The Hypothetical Apple Tablet: User Input Will Be the Key

I’m probably the last tech blogger to write about Apple’s still unannounced but likely tablet, and I claim absolutely no inside knowledge about its specs, price, or availability–or even its existence. But there’s one thing I think I can say about it with some confidence: Its success will depend on how well Apple solves the problem of user input to this mid-sized device.

The most striking, and encouraging, thing in former Google China President’s Kai-fu Lee’s seemingly definitive rundown on the tablet is that it will have an “amazing user interface.” I just hope he means “amazing” in a good way.

Unless the iSlate, or whatever it will be called, is designed, like a Kindle, exclusively for consumption of media content from a limited menu, data entry will be an important usability factor. The Kindle can make do with an awful keyboard because you don’t need to use it very often. But even relatively passive Web browsing requires a lot of typing to enter search terms and URLs.

We know satisfactory ways to enter data on two types of devices. On anything the size of a netbook or bigger, we use a standard keyboard. Anything more or less the size of a mobile phone handset has a miniature keyboard, either physical or virtual, designed to be used by holding the device in both hands–usually in landscape mode–and typing with our thumbs.

Tweener devices post a big problem. There’s no room for a standard keyboard,  since adding one would just turn them into a sort of laptop.  And the device is too big to hold phone style and still reach they keys of a mini-keyboard. One solution that has been tried on devices such as the Samsung Q1 and the original Kindle is a split keyboard with half of the keys on each side of the screen. But the human brain just seems to rebel at the idea of this.

I am by no means saying that Apple cannot make this work. The iPhone has already revolutionized phone user interfaces. Apple has the world’s best UI engineers, and and there’s no reason they can’t do it again, though I will submit that the problem of the tablet is harder. But unless the problem is solved, the tablet will probably be limited to a niche market.

Of course, data entry isn’t the only thing that has doomed all previous efforts at mid-sized tablets. Microsoft and Intel put a lot of effort into the ultra-mobile PC and mobile Internet device, respectively, and have nothing to show for it. But in both cases, the companies promoted a technology without ever coming up with a use case for it. Not only were the devices clumsy, but no one could figure out what they were supposed to be good for.

Apple, based on what has leaked out about its interactions with publishers and other content producers, seems intent on avoiding this trap. A rich menu of content, including a new type of interactive magazine that publishers are developing, could give consumers a good reason to want an Apple tablet. Apple just has to make it usable.

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5 Responses to “The Hypothetical Apple Tablet: User Input Will Be the Key”

  1. What Won’t Happen on the Internet in 2010 « Rob Hof's Blog Says:

    […] Oh, Apple will create a lot of buzz over whatever it releases. But as my former colleague Steve Wildstrom notes, the key will be the user interface–specifically, user input. Like it or not, a keyboard is […]

  2. Apple Tablet: Content Will Be Key | Acer Aspire One Reviews Says:

    […] The Hypothetical Apple Tablet: User Input Will Be the Key « Steve … Leave a comment […]

  3. hanum Says:

    really awesome gadget. Great innovation. I like it.

  4. Apple iTablet Says:

    My wife inserted an apple and it didnt workdoes it work with yellow or red apples?

  5. Stacia Remey Says:

    Good blog.

    What do you think of the Apple Tablet?

    I tell ya, I was disappointed this thing could have been insane instead they settled for a cheap device.

    iPad Touch

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