The MacPad Nano
2006-02-13

I wrote this in 2006. Today, we call this an iPad.


I am a hardcore Apple devotee. However, I haven’t really owned a Mac laptop in years. The last laptop I’ve used on a regular basis is an aging Fujitsu beater I picked up on eBay for $250, under three pounds with a touchscreen.

The problem is that Apple hasn’t made a really portable laptop in a long time. After lugging a Powerbook 1400 and, more recently, a tangerine iBook, I’ve sworn off laptops over 3 pounds. A truly light portable computer is a life altering experience – when you can carry something anywhere, you can use it anywhere. The PC world is full of lovely ultralight laptops that are perfect, except for the operating system: check out the Sony VAIO TX (2.76 pounds) or the Fujitsu Lifebook 1500D (2.21 pounds)

What amazes me is that Apple hasn’t jumped into the ultralight market with a vengeance. They were the first into that arena with the Duo, which had a dock design that seemed years ahead of its time (4.5 pounds… but that was light at the time!)

It would be a fairly simple thing to do. Here’s my recipe for my perfect Mac portable:

  • Start with whatever existing laptop you like, fully loaded – let’s use the MacBook Pro. At 4.5 pounds (the same as the Duo!), that’ll leave a crease in your shoulder.
  • Add a touchscreen. I’ve been using one on PC laptops for years. and it really changes your perspective – onscreen controls seem more like physical objects when you can manipulate them directly. With Inkwell built into OSX, it seems plain that Apple is moving in this direction.
  • Lose the keyboard. I don’t want it, I don’t need it, and if I do want one there are tons of portable bluetooth keyboards. I’ve been using a Frogpad for a few months since a motorcycle accident left me temporarily left handed.
  • Lose the trackpad. They’re clumsy and hard to use, and are replaced by the touchscreen
  • Lose the optical drive. I carry what I need on my hard drive, rarely want to burn disks on the road, it’s a small price to pay for increased portability and battery life, plus they’re a pain to upgrade on a laptop. Sell (or bundle!) a small, portable external drive to make up for it.
  • With those things gone, we have a tablet form factor instead of a clamshell. Make the screen smaller – perhaps 4.5″×8″ (widescreen, of course!) Keep everything else – Bluetooth, WiFi, USB, Video out, iSight, audio I/O. I like Firewire, but it seems redundant, that could go either way. I suppose you can keep the ExpressCard slot.
  • Definitely keep the Sudden Motion Sensor. This again feels like one of those things that Apple is putting in now to shake out the bugs before using it more deeply – it’s a trojan horse. The name and official functionality seem to be chosen to hide its importance. There are so many cool things that can be done with it, from gestural user interfaces to games to fun stuff like Phil Thayer’s Level Widget
  • Add some sort of a dock connector, and sell (bundle?) a dock. Ideally one that allows the tablet to stand at an adjustable angle, so it can be used like a desktop.
  • It should still have a laptop hard drive – say 80Gb. There has been a bit of buzz lately about the idea of an iBook Nano – a laptop with flash memory instead of a hard drive, offering greatly expanded battery life and “instant-on” capability. My gut instinct on this is “not this year” – I don’t think the price or capacity are there yet.

What we’re talking about here isn’t really a standalone laptop or desktop replacement, but more of a satellite computer – which is how a great many people use their laptops anyway. There should be some sort of syncing software, so that large files can be left on the desktop computer or external hard drive. Specifically, iTunes should have the ability to sync a subset of its library, just like an iPod. My iTunes library is already bigger than any laptop hard drive Apple sells, so this is already long overdue.

This would be a perfect adjunct to a Mac Mini. Take it home, drop it in the dock, and it recharges and synchronizes to the Mini. Pick it up and carry it around the house, using WiFi to keep in touch with the base. It makes a sensible remote control for an Apple “digital living room” solution – spiffy 3D menus on the tablet, music and video on your home entertainment equipment.

It’s interesting to note that what you wind up with looks a heck of a lot like the mockups and speculation about a video iPod, only bigger. You wouldn’t want to write a novel on it, but editing one or reading one would be fine. Video editing would work perfectly well, and might even be very fluid with the touchscreen interface. Imagine the next Timothy Treadwell shooting and editing his footage on one of these right in the field, then uploading to his vodcast on trips to civilization. Empowerment writ large…

Apple, please make this product. Have Jonathan Ive sprinkle his pixie dust on it, and I’ll put my order in the minute Steve stops talking!

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