In a word: Apps. Apple is said to be planning a tablet, and it'll live and die by its app store even more than the iPhone. Here's what we'd need to be convinced to fork over our hard-earned dollars for the chance to cruise the Tablet App Store. (Below, a Mac Tablet mockup, courtesy of ZDnet.)
Hardware Done Right
This is almost never Apple's problem; they have the most equisitely-designed and dependable machines on the PC market. But it bears saying that they'll need something super-light, GPS- and 3G-enabled if they're going to get people excited—after all, if the lowly Amazon Kindle can have a WhisperSync radio, a full-fledged multimedia device should be fully mobile too. It's worth noting that Apple doesn't always get things right, and occasionally shoots itself in the foot with stupid things like hardware DRM or glossy screens that reflect light like Michael Jackson's sallow skin. (Too soon?)
A Grown-Up App Store
There is nothing Apple needs more than a vibrant tablet app store to make a tablet succeed. This really can't be overstated. Sure, the iPhone and iPod have great apps, but they would have had moderate success even without an app store at all—and did, for almost a year before the App Store came online. But a tablet is a truly optional piece of hardware, unlike a phone or MP3 player. Ninety-nine percent of us haven't needed one, until now.
To convince us we do, the software has to be beautiful, and it has to make the machine's abilities outsized enough to make waves. They did it with the iPhone, but a tablet will be tougher—we expect a lot from mobile computers already. The iPhone interface isn't going to cut it on a larger screen; we'll need a file browser, and space to put stuff. But porting the full OS X to a tablet won't work either.
The store itself must be easy to browse while multitasking. Right now, the iTunes App Store feels unwieldy and poorly-integrated. And it has a discovery problem; out of 50,000 apps, it's hard to find new things you don't know to search for. As for the apps themselves, well, keep reading.
A Few Moves from Microsoft
Apple might know a thing or two about mobile touch-based apps, but to make the jump to full-sized touch machines, they'll have to take a few cues from the resident experts: the Microsoft Surface guys. A few weeks ago, we did a detailed roundup of some truly killer apps for the table computing platform, and Apple could do worse than mimic a few of these. Specifically, they'll have to make the tablet's Maps application rich and super-functional with things like complex route and trip planning, overlaid weather graphics, and topographical information (as several Surface apps do). They'll also need some addictive two-player touch games, ala RazorFish's Table Toss game for Surface. The latter will obviously have to come from third-party developers, since Apple hasn't shown much interest in doing games. But to get developers in on the party, they'll need to think carefully about pricing.
The Right Price
Few of us think twice about throwing away a dollar or two on the App Store, but if prices get any higher, the spigot will turn off. That's because there's no real way to know whether an app will be useful or not until you buy it; the App Store doesn't do software demos. Buy a $0.99 app and never use it—that's not much of a loss. But if Tablet apps show up at $10 or $15, people are going to get wary. To ameliorate the barrier, Apple would need a demo-mode for apps, or they'd need to lessen the 30% cut they take on app revenue. Otherwise, developers that currently make iPhone and Mac apps won't be incentivized to build for the Tablet, which will likely require more man-hours and brainpower to code for.
The Financial Times has reported that Apple is working in conjunction with movie studios and record companies to build a super-rich multimedia app codenamed "Cocktail." It'll be an improvement on the media-buying of the iTunes Store, says the article; albums will come with more visual goods, interactive features, not the "bunch of PDFs" that pass for digital album art today. But the media companies are kidding themselves if they think that consumers will pay more for an album loaded with this content, after paying $10 an album for years on the iTunes and Amazon music stores. Not only that, the multimedia in Cocktail will need to be artists-generated, not a bunch of swag: We're talking artist interviews, remixes, bonus tracks, music videos, commentary, making-of, and other quality material. Making a "bunch of PDFs" into a slideshows isn't gonna cut it.
As we've written, the real beauty of mobile apps is their ability to be mashed up with the real world that is sitting right in front of you. Take the new iPhone app for London tube-seekers, as seen below. A tablet will have to double-down on this kind of functionality, but with a 10-inch screen, it might be a little unwieldy to use it camera-phone-style. Here's where the iPhone's Bluetooth can finally be useful. Until now, it's barely been good for anything—headsets, sure, but who gives a crap about those? If the iPhone can share its camera with the Apple Tablet, it'd be nice to be able to photograph a landmark and have the tablet pull up a Wiki entry based on shared GPS data, or be able to import a whole bunch of iPhone shots to make a slideshow. The iPhone right now is great for single-purpose duty, but for more complex stuff, it could use a big brother. (Oh, and Bluetooth sharing might allow wireless tethering, too, forgoing the need for an on-board 3G radio in the tablet.)
Apple doesn't directly compete with Amazon's Kindle, and they shouldn't start now. Presumably, a tablet app store will sport some kind of Kindle iPhone app on steroids, but Apple will need to make the hardware purpose-built for easy reading. This means a cool-running body, matte display and ultra-efficient battery. Readability is one thing that today's laptops and netbooks lack; they're hot, heavy and uncomfortable, and the batteries drain quickly. Should Apple make book-mode a priority, they'll be able to capitalize on a major selling point at a time when the book industry needs digital sales more than ever.
If you want me to drop my holiday money on a new tablet gizmo this Christmas, then it had better offer some combination of the above.