Why Won’t the Apple Tablet Rumors Go Away?

Digitimes reported today that LCD manufacturer Wintek will produce displays for a new Apple [AAPL] netbook to be released this summer. We’ve been hearing about the non-existant Apple netbook for months. Why won’t these rumors die?

Digitimes reported today that LCD manufacturer Wintek will produce displays for a new Apple [AAPL] netbook to be released this summer. We’ve been hearing about the non-existant Apple netbook for months. Why won’t these rumors die?


Perhaps the timing is finally right. In the past, the accuracy of Apple rumors is usually correlated with their durability. Year after year, Apple’s skunkworks projects have been foretold by persistent leaks, sometimes years ahead. Everything from the Intel transition to the iPhone release was subject to oft-dismissed threads, usually thanks in part to Steve Jobs’ outright denials (and maybe even a certain amount of disinformation on Apple’s part).

Jobsian denials notwithstanding, most Apple rumors can usually be dismissed outright for two reasons. But the Apple subnotebook rumor passes muster with both.

Mac Netbook

The first flaw in most rumors is the assumption that Apple wants to scale the same way that their competitors do. Such was the erratum in some analysts’ unfulfilled prediction that the iPhone maker would release an “iPhone Nano” to capture a wider breadth of customers and increase market share. Nice idea, but as Apple COO Tim Cook has said, Apple doesn’t have much interest in playing the market share game just for the sake of it. The company is design-obsessed first, and earnings-obsessed second (look at the Apple TV for proof). If Apple was interested in market share as its primary metric of success, it would allow Apple PC clones, built-to-order computers, and cheaper products across the line. Apple is more interested in disruption and perfection; the numbers are ancillary.

The second trait of a failed rumor is the stipulation that Apple make a product that relies on a half-baked technology. Examples? Of course there’s no WiMAX in the MacBook Air; there’s no WiMAX in most of the country, and few people on the street even know what it is. And why complain that the iPhone can’t sync over Bluetooth; do you really want to transfer music–16GB of music at 3 megabits per second–over the air, instead of 480 megabits per second over USB 2.0?

But the timing could be right for Apple to release a product that fills the gap between the iPhone and the MacBook Air, in both form factor and price. The iPhone is a great communications device, but doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to long-form data entry or document reading. The MacBook Air is a cool notebook, but not a hell of a lot more portable than the MacBook, and it’s a bit expensive for the basic Web, email and word processing that most people do with ultra-light PCs.

But a larger tablet with a touchscreen keyboard, a 3G radio and running the iPhone OS–why not? Apple has already produced viable touchscreen typing software, and it already has an operating system that is low on power consumption and high on performance. A Mac tablet would improve upon the iPhone by enabling multitasking, a bigger screen, copy-paste, and easier typing, making a portable version of iLife (or an adapted version of Amazon’s new Kindle app for iPhone) a fully-realized possibility. A full version of Safari would mean a complete Web experience, and Apple’s ever-improving battery technology would mean more time on the road. The App Store is ready and waiting for a new generation of full-featured software, and the infrastructure for selling it is in place. 


Apple’s connectivity technology is in the right place, too. An unlimited data plan would be easy to ink with AT&T, Apple’s iPhone partner, solid-state hard drives are growing cheaper by the week, and the company has already proven that a computing device can be fully unwired with the MacBook Air. A 3G wireless contact could include MobileMe, perfect for using an Apple tablet as a fully-sync’d sidekick PC. And there’s no standout tablet on the market right now that Apple would need to dethrone, making the product landscape look a lot like the pre-iPod MP3 market.

Manufacturer-leaked predictions have been right before, and The New York Times has even reported that an “unnamed” search engine has found an “unannounced Apple product with a display somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook” in its traffic logs in October. (And it’s not a Hackintosh running the Kalyway version of OS X; those identify themselves as Mac Pros, regardless of hardware.)

How much would you pay for an Apple tablet? $699? $899?

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.