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Apple Tablet Could Be a Bitter Pill


Jobs is back in town and back to business.


CEO Steve Jobs personally oversaw the development of Apple's (AAPL) most innovative and best-selling brainchildren: the iPod, iPhone and MacBook. But while on his recent leave of absence, the Cupertino company wasn't subjected to the 54-year-old's notoriously heavy hand and watchful eye. As such, while Apple devices underwent relatively unobstructed modification, no new product line was launched.

That's all about to change: Upon his June return from a liver transplant and lengthy recovery, the chief set his starry-eyed sights on creating a new tablet computer. And the rest of Apple is readjusting to his many demands.

Although Apple filed a patent on a tablet-like device in 2000, heavy development didn't begin until recent years. In typical Steve Jobs fashion, the much-rumored device is shrouded in secrecy as it undergoes intense fine-tuning -- for better and worse. Because sleekness and ease-of-use have always been Apple's mainstay, Jobs' involvement will only add to the triumphs and headaches during the long research and development process. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal, some of the hiccups along the way, including poor battery life and insufficient memory, have brought the tablet project to a screeching halt.

With no new product line since the launch of the iPhone, Apple is focusing most of its attention on the tablet computer and hoping for a revolutionary unveiling. But will the end result be a fantastic, larger-than-life iPhone or a costly disappointment like the Apple Newton?

The tablet computer is a very risky venture -- as evidenced by the unimpressive sales of tablet PCs from Panasonic (PC), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Toshiba -- and one targeting a very specific user demographic. Folks who'd like something more advanced than a smartphone but smaller and less expensive than a laptop already have the netbook. Apple would be remiss not to improve upon the netbook's notable limitations, such as the frequently omitted ethernet port and optical drive.

The touchscreen interface will carry the same problems that come with the iPhone and iPod Touch -- namely the easily smudged and scratchable face -- but on a grander scale. Apple will likely include a protective cover like on Amazon's (AMZN) Kindle, but that'll just add to the bulk.

Aside from the touchscreen interface, its unique form factor creates an entirely new method of interaction. A stylus might be included for scrawling handwritten emails -- let's hope the recognition software has improved since the Newton -- but typing out a message on a touchscreen will be significantly more difficult than on the much smaller iPhone. Plus, it'll be hell on the spine for anyone sitting at a desk and forced to hunch over the flatly laid device.

Lastly, Apple could prove to be its own detriment. The iPhone has turned the entire mobile industry on its head. Capable of surfing the web, watching a movie, shooting video, and downloading apps "for just about anything," the iPhone can do almost the same things a tablet computer can do -- only cheaper -- and already has its established market.

That being said, Apple will undoubtedly create something flashy and eye-catching. And, who knows, if it proves to be successful, the company could potentially revitalize the tablet format from its clunky predecessors. Travel computing would branch off from the ubiquitous laptop in a coffee shop to a lit screen in the hands of every commuter -- like an iPod, only larger.

While no release date is set, analysts predict the product to appear in Apple stores later this year or first quarter 2010.

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