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TUAW Watercooler: Apple's next big thing


The internal email list for all the TUAW bloggers is a busy place. Some of the best conversations from the list, including musings, rants and raves, don't ever appear on the site. Today we wanted to give you a taste of one of those conversations, about Apple's 'next big thing.'

There has been plenty of discussion lately about Apple's next category-defining product. For months, I've dismissed tablet rumors. I know that Windows-based tablets are plentiful, but I've never used one, and don't know what the most useful applications are. I immediately think of a guy conducting inventory in a warehouse, but I know that's only because I have no experience with these machines.

Some suggest something that's essentially a laptop inside a touch screen, much like the iMac is a computer within its display; of course, Axiotron already makes a MacBook-based tablet. I don't see the practicality. I certainly enjoy the internet and email on my iPhone, but the amount of typing I do on the iPhone is a small percentage of what I do on my MacBook Pro.

Still, I think a similar device is coming.

Apple has a history of bringing innovative, unexpected products to the market (the Macintosh, Newton, etc.). The company also has a history of presenting the best way to do something that's already been tried. The iPod wasn't the first digital music player, and the iPhone was hardly the first mobile phone. Both complete tasks in a manner that we consumers hadn't considered, and that's what makes them great.

The next big thing from Apple -- let's call it the "iDevice" for lack of something better -- will be an example of the later. Tablet PCs exist. Electronic book readers like the Kindle exist. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the iDevice is a synthesis of the two. Full color, running a variant of Mac OS X, thin and portable with a touchscreen. Not a Kindle and not a tablet, but a bit of both.

You could argue that Apple saved the music industry with iTunes and legitimized mobile phone applications with the App Store. Could it do the same for the failing newspaper industry? Our own Megan Lavey doubts it.

"The most fundamental problem with newspapers [is] that there now just isn't the staff at papers to support generating content for a device like this. Plus, while the big three (NYT, WSJ and USA Today) may jump quickly on board this new Kindle, the local level newspapers are far, far behind this. Layoffs and lack of retention have grown to such a point that you have a basic skeleton staff to put out most papers.

A device like this would work if implementing the distribution of articles was made extremely simple from the newspaper end. That a copy editor (what's left of them) could press a button on a finished story and it's automatically there on the device. The device must be simple to use, yet get across content such as photography and graphics quickly without having designers completely redesign the print product."

That's a good point, so the next consideration is a move beyond newspapers. Christina Warren thinks the answer is in collegiate text books (already in the mix as part of the Kindle DX offering).

"Do textbooks, and you win. Even without a subsidy, which universities would totally sign up to do using one of the various funds made up by student fees, it would be worth the investment for most 4-year students, and a no-brainer for grad school.

I know during my extended tenure in college that I spent thousands on textbooks, often getting nothing back at trade-in. I had to deal with professors switching series every semester, making finding used books unreliable, unless I wanted to scour eBay and then wait for delivery."

Most budget-minded students would agree that textbooks are very expensive, especially considering that they're either ignored or re-sold at the end of the semester. Kindle books are potentially cheaper than their paper counterparts and a lot lighter in the backpack. As a (possibly unintended) consequence, this would limit the resale of used books, making the publishers happier, and keeping editions fresher.

So how would schools distribute these course materials? iTunes U seems like the answer to me. Access iTunes U from your iDevice and download a semester's worth of books in a minute or two. To extend the concept, Steven Sande sees the iDevice as a way for Apple to regain a lost foothold in the education market.

"If you can get the textbook publishers to agree to move their content to the platform and update it regularly, then you have a device that could literally stay with a student all the way from grade school through grad school. It would be hard to justify buying 'regular' computers if each student had a tablet they could use as a textbook, a reference tool, and more."

Now, consider the above features on a device with a color touch screen that also has your photos and music, maybe even a few fun apps, and ubiquitous connectivity. Also notice that Apple's keyboards have been getting smaller and thinner lately. The Bluetooth model without the number pad would be a perfect companion.

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