Five Ways Apple's Tablet May Change the World

Business writers love hyperbole. The ground will swell. The paradigm will shift. But what if occasionally a new tech gadget comes along that really does shake up society? Apple's (AAPL) planned tablet may just be such a device. Speculation about Apple's one-device-to-rule-them-all iPad reached fever pitch this month when Yair Reiner, an analyst at Oppenheimer (OPY), dug through Steve Jobs' production pipeline and found evidence that the tablet was being readied for an April 2010 launch. The timing makes sense. The iPhone is three years old, the U.S. economy is rebounding, and gadget demand is pent up among Americans who held off on toy upgrades during the recession. By spring we'll no doubt be past the holiday sales of the black-and-white e-readers that still look vaguely like medical prostate screening devices. The world is recovering from its Wall Street hangover, and it's looking for a new tech party invitation. An Apple tablet would be the guest of honor. Laura DiDio, an analyst at Information Technology Intelligence, has predicted the Apple tablet will be "the next big thing," complete with 10- to 12-inch high-res screen, Web connection, and a video cam. Other manufacturers such as Dell (DELL) are preparing tablets, too, but Apple is the one to watch—because Apple is best at making radical new hardware formats undeniably cool. Print Media ComebackSo yes, the Jesus Tablet will appear. And yes, you'll buy one with an artificially high price of, say, $800 as penance for being an early adopter. Within two years the price will fall to $199 until everyone including your 6-year-old has a gleaming, do-anything, interactive pane of glass on his or her desk. As that happens, the iPad will change the world in at least five ways. Magazine and newspaper publishing will bounce back as consumers rediscover paid subscriptions. Sorry, Chris Anderson, but not everything will revert to free. It's no mistake Time Inc.'s (TWX) Sports Illustrated invested in a sexy tablet magazine demo that's also due to hit the market next year. Publishers realize they have a very narrow window to recapture the paid subscribers they lost to the Web, and they'll do anything to grab you with the Apple gizmo. Expect to see publishers launch visually stunning versions of their magazines with swooping typography, video insets, CNN iReporter-style news uploads, social media overlays—whatever it takes to make you think you're seeing a magazine or newspaper like never before, so much so you'll even want to pay for it. Television and radio ratings will continue to fall. Unlike print, TV and radio won't fit easily into the Apple tablet's format. Sure, U.S. consumers still watch 5 hours and 9 minutes of live television a day, but the problem is ratings don't hold when commercials actually air. Certainly, Apple will try to push TV shows and movies through the tablet via iTunes, but we're betting they don't sit well in your hand. Rather than being a device to watch television, the Apple tablet is more likely to be an interactive distraction when real TV ads come on your basement set. Nielsen noted this trend of "concurrent media usage" this spring, in a $3.5 million study that recorded what hundreds of people actually do when commercials air. When TV spots came on, people picked up laptops, magazines, or cell phones and did something other than watch the screen. Expect that trend to accelerate when you have an Apple tablet in your lap. Augmented-reality views of the world will increase. If you missed this trend, it's simple: Augmented reality puts computer graphics on top of live video feeds, similar to the yellow line you see on the field in NFL games.IPhone users now can download applications that overlay a video feed from their iPhone camera—providing floating arrows on the screen showing you, say, the distance to the nearest New York City subway station. With a larger tablet, such video overlays on reality will become even more compelling. Expect app makers to leap ahead by giving construction workers 3D instructions at a job site, providing consumers with product reviews that float over items on sale at the mall, or serving daters a visual display of the job history, FICO score, and criminal record of that cute guy or gal they meet at a bar. Two-way video on tablets will push communication costs even lower. Yes, technically you can do portable video today, if you're willing to walk around town with a laptop flipped open near a Wi-Fi zone. But by and large, our infrastructure still can't accommodate simple two-way video on the go. Add a tablet with built-in Webcam, and suddenly video calls are as easy as holding up a mirror. You better believe AT&T (T) and Verizon Wireless (VZ) are sweating about the advent of Skype video in subway trains or on Hawaiian beaches. (Perhaps Apple will throw its partner AT&T a bone by holding off on tablet Webcams for a few generations. Or it will throw AT&T under the bus by cutting a tablet deal with Verizon Wireless, a scenario at least under consideration earlier this year. Telecommuting may finally take off. If you hate your commute and care remotely about the environment, then why do you still sit in traffic for two hours each day? Because society has decreed face time is better than phone time. But when Apple tablets make portable video truly accessible, plane tickets and poor coffee in cars may become things of the past. We could be wrong. Perhaps it's too much to hope for: a world where Apple provides low-cost, two-way video anywhere that saves print journalism while reducing phone costs, augments reality while cutting your commute, heck, even brings humanity closer together while stopping traffic jams and pollution. But heck, Apple. Even if you can't solve the world's problems, we'll buy one anyway.

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