The Apple iTablet cures cancer!

The frenzy around Apple’s assumed-to-be-forthcoming tablet computer is reaching a feverish pitch, with major news outlets, from the New York Times to the British Broadcasting Corp., covering and feeding the speculation. I haven’t seen this much hyperbole since, oh, the run-up to James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar.

The latest hints are that Apple will launch the tablet at the end of January. The rumor mill also says that Apple will show significant upgrades to its iPhone software stack and relevant revisions to the Apple App Store.

A common thread to the rumors is that the tablet will be a cross between the iPhone and the MacBook Air notebook computer. That means built-in wireless connectivity on a cellular data network (like the iPhone or Amazon’s Kindle book reader), that it will be sold along with a service plan (again, like the iPhone), and that Apple will create a distribution channel for it (like the music and software offered through the App Store).

The company is expected to unveil a developer program for the iTablet (or whatever it’s called). This will be an extension of the iPhone developer program, and will in fact rely upon many of the same tools, SDKs and APIs. The biggest code changes would be in the user interface: a tablet’s screen is much larger than the iPhone display. App developers would need to rework their software not only to leverage the larger screen, but also accommodate the larger format’s user-experience models.

How much truth is in those rumors? It’s hard to be certain. Apple is notorious for its secrecy. In fact, carefully controlled secrecy is one of the main reasons why Apple’s marketing prowess is unparalleled.

The other area where Apple currently excels is in developer relations. That’s a change in its historic behavior, which was hostile to third-party developers.

To digress for a moment, this reminds me of the OS/2 Wars, back in the mid-1990s. IBM’s OS/2 operating system was far superior to DOS, and was poised for large-scale growth. However, Microsoft’s technologically inferior Windows 95 took over the market, totally destroying OS/2.

Why did Microsoft win, and mighty IBM lose? For the same two reasons why the iPhone has succeeded beyond all expectations. First, Microsoft was infinitely better at consumer marketing than Big Blue. (Remember how people stood in line at midnight to get their copies of Windows 95? Does that remind you of anything?)

Microsoft also lavished its developers with tender loving care. Top executives, from Bill Gates on down, worked hard to create opportunities for its ISVs to make money. IBM, by contrast, never saw any value in supporting ISVs. Therefore, independent developers embraced Windows 95, and that’s why we use Windows PCs today instead of IBM PC Compatibles.

Over the past decade, Microsoft forgot how to appeal to small entrepreneurial developers creating consumer applications. That’s one reason why its own Windows XP Tablet PC initiative never caught on. There just weren’t enough compelling applications.

By stark contrast, Apple has learned from its mistakes. Steve Jobs never figured out how to inspire developers to create consumer applications for the Macintosh, but he succeeded – in spades – in bringing thousands of app developers to the iPhone platform. Maybe it’s the marketing, maybe it’s the SDK, maybe it’s the App Store distribution channel, but Apple has overcome its past failures. While the iPhone hardware is cool, it’s the third-party apps that truly enable the platform.

And that’s where the iTablet (or whatever it’s called) will live or die – by the strength of Apple’s developer relationships. If Apple replicates what it did with iPhone ISVs, its tablet computer will, indeed, live up to the hype.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick