People in the industry, and meanwhile even outside of it, call it just the tablet. It has become the word that’s synonymous for Apple’s next big move, a new member of the growing family of ultra portable computers like the iPod Touch, the iPhone or perhaps the MacBook Air. The latter can’t decline it’s heritage, but the other members are of a new breed. It is as if Apple wanted to define computing as we know it.

Apple Retail Store, Bahnhofstrasse Zurich

This shopping window of Zurich's Apple Store on Tuesday night, one day before Apple's tablet event, doesn't show the usual arrangement of complex App-Icon bursts covering iPhones and iPods. It looks more like a setup that can be changed within 10 minutes.

And perhaps that idea isn’t so far off the truth. If you’ve followed Apple’s path not only from the stock holders perspective, or watching through the eyes of eager blogs like Engadget, even if you tried not to follow Apple’s plans at all and just used some applications or devices coming out of the rather unusual computer company, you might have gotten a touch of what is different with these new devices. They are not revolutionary new, but they offer enough innovation and improving just the right amount of user experience that makes them stand out of the crowd. Even more so, they become role models for generations to come, phones and computers made by all other companies. Without a doubt, the iPhone has set the pace for the ongoing mobile revolution and it doesn’t look like Apple is done yet with its job.

What will make its next device different, which is expected to be revealed by tomorrow, 9:00 AM in California, isn’t its form factor, which is expected to be of tablet shape. It’s also not its touch capabilities, which are said to be similar to the ones of iPhones. It’s also not the ability to play games, or surf the web, or send e-mail, listen to music and take notes. All those things can be done with computers and there are even some solid tablet computers out there who do a pretty good job at these things.

Apple took the idea of a tablet computer and asked itself, over and over for the past seven years during its development: what is it that makes us want to use such a thing? It didn’t stop there. It asked further questions, like: how will portable computing change the way we work? What do folders, windows and mouse pointers mean on a handheld touch device? Clearly, we can see some of these answers on the iPhone and iPod Touch. But these devices are well designed to cover a couple of things that fit in the palms of our hands. What if you ask the bigger question, like what is next after the desktop metaphor we’ve been using since the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984?

John Gruber made an excellent assessment of what he thinks will differentiate Apple’s new device from other handheld and ultra portable computers. Recently he’s also speculated about its name, which could be anything from iPad over Canvas to Slate. Many say it’s going to be iSlate, but personally I don’t know if Apple wants to continue with the lowercase i in front of everything.

I think the big step here isn’t going to be that thing we’ll be lusting after from tomorrow on. It’s the things that follow, the next generation of ubiquitous computing, seamlessly weaving anything we do or like in two hands holding a touch sensible screen, making it a handheld window to the world we live in.

Good bye windows, folders and desktops. You served us well, but now your time has come.

Here are my predictions for Apple’s “Creations” event on January 27, 2010:

  • Apple’s new tablet computer will be called Slate, iSlate, Canvas or iPad, or a name we haven’t heard of yet, but will be crystal clear the moment we hear it (it’s only iSlate if Apple remains conservative with its naming strategy)
  • A network provider independent version will be priced just under $1000, but it’s possible the tablet will be offered with a dataplan from at&t.
  • It will come with Wi-Fi, bluetooth and possibly a slot for 3G SIM cards (for data plans only)
  • It will have a solid state drive and an aluminum casing like the MacBook Air, probably similar in shape and haptics
  • It won’t have video chat from the start (front facing camera), but Apple is working on it and this will be added to the tablet and the iPhone in later versions
  • Like on the iPhone and iPod Touch, the core system will be based on Mac OS X
  • The interface of Mac OS and iPhone OS were brought closer together, but metaphors like folders and windows will disappear
  • It will have finger writing recognition (a derivate of the Newton days), similar like the Chinese writing recognition built into Mac OS 10.6
  • It will run iPhone apps, although not all iPhone apps will be optimized for its screen from the beginning
  • Except for making phone calls, it will be able to do a lot of things the iPhone does as well, but it’s uncertain wheither location awareness (GPS) and a compass are built in too
  • From a marketing perspective, the tablet’s main target groups are students and consumers, so everyone in a family can use this device at home to control their Apple TV or iTunes
  • In addition to the iTunes Music Store, movies, TV shows and podcasts, a new magazine and book store will be revealed
  • Of course it’s optimized for games (shock vibe, motion sensors), but running on a faster processor than the iPhone, possibly with the additional graphics processor that’s also built into the MacBook Air
  • iLife will get a new application called Canvas, which is a paint application that lets you create new artwork and modify photos (think how you can finger paint on a touch screen)
  • There will be a new version of iWork just for this device

I have a couple of friends who live in geek sphere. Some think the holy grail of geek sphere is the ultimate media center, a box that sends images, sound and movies to a large flatscreen TV. In any format, streamed from the Internet, live or canned, from anywhere on your hard drive. (Sorry, Apple TV, we mean also outside of that iTunes cage.)

The Boxee Box front side.

The Boxee font side.

It may sound like a simple task, and Microsoft fans will wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes. That is, until they need to reboot their Windows Media Center for the eleventh time, after Windows required another “critical security update”, or it showed off its infamous bluescreen of death.

The Boxee interface, currently in Beta.

The Boxee interface, currently in beta.

What Apple carefully calls a hobby and Microsoft does, because it kind of has to, is a domain that has been silently covered by a number of Open Source projects. Among the runner ups for ultimate free media center solutions are Plex and Boxee. Boxee has been around for a while and it’s been doing a pretty good job to bring Stephen Colbert and YouTube to your HD-ready TV set. Not formatted in HD, but that’s not the point.

Boxee is no longer limited to software (there’s a new beta out). The Boxee Box, physical box made by D-Link, will soon hit the market. Designed by Astro Studios, who gave the XBox its cshape, the Boxee Box will enter a competitive market, but its features already outmatch those of competitors like Apple TV (breaking out of iTunes format limitations being just one of them).

The backside.

The Boxee backside.

For the geeks among us, there are pictures of a pretty modest Beta release party thrown at the Brooklyn Music Hall of Williamsburg a little more than a week ago.

The Boxee Box is expected to be introduced at the CES in Las Vegas, in early January 2010.

(Images: Boxee TV)