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Weekly Column

Kindling: WebKit is the key to Apple's near future including a new tablet computer.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (110)
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

When I started writing this column in the spring of 1997 Apple was on the skids. It was the era of Gil Amelio, still several months before the return of Steve Jobs. Apple's products were a confused mish-mash, with product planning coming more from CompUSA than from Cupertino. There was no long-term vision and the company was clearly for sale with no buyers. Sun had taken a look and passed on the deal, simply seeing nothing worth the couple of billion it would have cost to buy the company. In terms of market cap that was more than $160 billion ago, as Apple has gone up by more than 80X since the return of Steve Jobs in the summer of 1997. Jobs and Apple are now on top of the personal computing and consumer electronics worlds, "firing on all cylinders" as Wall Street analysts like to put it. That means it is time for a more nuanced look at the company and where it is headed. Is it really that valuable?

Yes.

Apple is used to setting styles and inventing platforms, but at the risk of undercutting next month's 2008 predictions column, let's first look at where the product line could use some help. If there are obvious gaps (there are) then they probably need filling, and soon.

1) A new form factor for the Mac Pro towers.

2) Better LCD displays. Apple's are big but expensive and the specs are no longer better than the competition -- or even close. Where are the HDMI ports and the built-in iSight cameras?

3) Blu-ray or, for that matter ANY HD optical storage. This was promised years ago.

4) H.264 hardware support.

5) Black or dark gray MacBook Pros.

6) And of course the now-leaked-by-AT&T 3G iPhone.

One product I believe WON'T be coming soon from Apple is a Flash plug-in for the iPhone. Though this was at one time promised, it is hard to say how real that promise ever was because of the strategic importance of Apple's WebKit -- the basis of the Safari browser on Mac, Windows, and now the iPhone and iPod Touch.

WebKit, an open source web browser engine (not a web browser in its own right but all the parts you'd need to build a web browser), is key to Apple's vision for devices like the iPhone and the iPod Touch that live somewhere between computers and phones and define where Apple is headed with its mobile strategy.

Not much is said about WebKit and this is a surprise to me since it is such a big hit. Google's Open Handset Alliance Android smartphone software platform uses WebKit as its web rendering engine, and the open source KDE and GTK+ projects both use KHTML, on which WebKit was based.

The point of WebKit for Apple was to define an open source standard for rendering web pages on all sorts of Internet-enabled devices. This also explains why Apple used KHTML instead of Gecko or its own web engine for Safari -- even though KHTML was terrible at rendering web pages that were optimized for Internet Explorer. KHTML is the only rendering engine that can pass the Acid2 web-rendering test, and following a standard was more important to Apple than correctly rendering poorly written web pages.

Which brings us back to the lack of a Flash player or plug-in for the iPhone, which is the single greatest reason why we do not yet see true third-party iPhone applications. Had Apple allowed a Flash player on the iPhone, it risked having Flash -- rather than the Apple-preferred Ajax -- become the dominant iPhone web application development environment.

Apple sees much of its future in Internet-enabled consumer appliances. It's the third or fourth rebirth of the whole Network Appliance concept, only this time mobility and media are added and the mix may finally be right. But this strategy won't work as well if Apple has to depend on a third party to bless its platform. These days the options are to embrace Microsoft (.NET and Silverlight), Sun (Java), or Adobe (Flash), but Apple wants to control its own destiny, zigging and zagging as it likes to crush competitors, hence WebKit. It's a huge success for Apple that people just aren't talking about.

I'm not saying that a Flash player or plug-in won't eventually appear, but Apple won't allow it to happen until Cupertino feels the WebKit/iPhone/iPod Touch platform is established well enough to stand on its own.

The next logical WebKit product for Apple, it seems to me, is a much larger version of the iPod Touch. It would be Apple's first tablet computer and, while they'll still claim it runs OS X, Apple WON'T call it a Mac.

I'm not the only person thinking like this. Here's more from an old friend who is much smarter than I. He sees an Apple tablet coming in January for five simple reasons:

1) Because MacWorld in January is when Apple stuns the world with improvements and innovations. A well-designed tablet could be a great innovation. An SDK for February 2008, not for just iPhone but for multi-touch devices in general, including a newly available iTablet-- that would be stunning.

2) Because a multi-touch tablet would provide a patent-protected interface for a new class of communication and computer device that Microsoft and its hardware partners would be hard-pressed to clone. The question now is does one get a Mac or a PC? There would be no PC analog to a well-designed Mac tablet, so if an iTablet is compelling, the question then becomes more like, when can I get one?

3) Because a nice form-factor tablet could be a significant addition to a video-viewing ecosystem. Apple's success in music is not just about well-designed music players, but the way iPods work with iTunes, and the fact that people could easily move their CD collections over and play them on these new portable devices. A nice iTablet could be great for viewing videos. It's not clear that Apple can build in DVD ripping ala Handbrake, but if they did (on the legal grounds that people can make a copy of what they already own, like a CD), then that would be another significant video ecosystem factor. Add good video-storage options on local disks, home networks, and "the cloud," sprinkle in the option for HD viewing, and then mix all that with being able to view videos on iPods and iPhones, Macs and PCs, big screens via Apple TV, and then sleek, portable iTablets... Well, then we'll watch the major studios start to provide their video libraries, all but Disney kicking, screaming, wringing hands, and gnashing teeth.

4) Because an iTablet with a camera built in could potentially have the power and bandwidth to enable portable video communication. Video communication is another ecosystem for which I believe Apple is laying the groundwork.

5) The fact that an iTablet could be a great e-book reader, too, is not a driving reason for such a device, I don't believe. But it's a nice capability. Read the book and watch the movie. Then watch Amazon's new Kindle go up in flames.

To this I might add a sixth reason for an iTablet intro, which is because AT&T last week stole the thunder from an Apple 3G iPhone announcement. Jobs sorely needs something even better to announce.

Frankly, I wasn't fully convinced until reaching point five. Killing the Kindle and deflating Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos -- now that's something worthy of Jobs and Apple.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (110)

I can tell you aren't a Linux/BSD chap Bob : ) KDE isn't on the same technical "level" as GTK+ as KDE is a desktop and GTK+ is "only" a toolkit. You generally compare KDE against GNOME, Qt against GTK+ etc.

It's hard to say how embracing the GTK+ folks will be about Webkit. It's certainly going to be ported by some companies (e.g. Nokia, Adobe, Google) but I don't think it's going to be a fundamental pillar in GTK+ itself. Apple has done good work on Webkit though so it will be interesting to see whether it rubs Gecko out in the long run. While extensions like Firebug aren't compltely available on Webkit I think Firefox will have place...

Anon | Dec 12, 2007 | 3:20PM

The Kindle will have a niche market. Eventually, perhaps years from now, a reader such as Kindle will be invented that has:

Resolution and contrast as good as paper, or better.

Color.

The size of a standard sheet of paper (8.5" x 11").

Light weight (no more than a thick paperback).

I think this will replace nearly all paper documents, including newspapers, magazines, books and so on. This will greatly reduce distribution costs, speed up distribution, and save lots of paper. Plus it will be a boon to people with vision problems and other disabilities, because you can zoom up the text size or turn the page with a voice input command.

I wish someone would make a device like this to replace Japanese manga now, because they use so much paper and they use low-res, low quality paper anyway. An AP writer estimated that manga are ~42% of Japanese printed material, which wouldn't surprise me. They are distributed by cell phone, along with everything else in Japan, but a Kindle-like device would be better.

Jed Rothwell | Dec 12, 2007 | 5:46PM

Please take the NerdTV link down. It's December 14th, 2007, the last NerdTV was from April 2006.

John | Dec 14, 2007 | 5:37AM