The world’s news portals are awash with stories about electronic book readers (eReaders), tablet PCs and a top-secret device, supposedly called the iSlate, coming from Apple.  So strong are the Apple rumours that competitors have been rushing their own iSlate killers onto the market in anticipation.

At the recent CES extravaganza in Las Vegas where all the new gizmos come out, even Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, joined the bandwagon flashing, ever so briefly, a tablet thing from HP.  Not that anybody else got to play with it but it was visible.  It was not nearly as impressive as Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, extracting the original Macbook Air from a manila envelope to a stunned audience, but it did herald what looks to be the next battleground for attracting consumer dollars.

It’s hardly a new concept.  Tablet notebooks powered by Windows have been around for years.  I had an original Acer unit with a clever screen that could be twisted flat, replacing the keyboard with a 12” touch sensitive screen.  I loved that machine but when I lost the original stylus that was essential for operation I discivered it’s first major shortcoming.  The second was that it used what was basically PC software, usually driving a mouse and keyboard, to do things it wasn’t designed for.  The onscreen keyboard was clumsy and inaccurate at best and it was quite bulky.  It shone when used in economy class flights because it didn’t have to be opened up and could rest on the lap (until it got too hot to handle).  This was the time I discovered that I could subscribe and download almost every worthwhile magazine in the world the day of publication (at a much lower price) and read it comfortably on my tablet PC. A habit I still have after six years!

I digress, the tablet PC concept seemed to almost die away until Amazon released the Kindle, a smaller, thinner, simpler and much lighter device that allowed books to be downloaded and read via a reasonably clear ‘black & white’ LCD screen.  Electronic books are cheaper to buy and these device stores thousands of them.  It’s like taking a whole library anywhere with you.  Now there are lots of similar devices appearing and you can download newspapers, magazines and even your own files, but they are basically readers, little more.

Best of all is the ‘green’ effect they encompass.  Less trees are cut down, less paper waste created, less ink, less shipping, etc.  Sounds like all the arguments we use for our ‘Kill the Bill’ Campaign.  But this all creates a new dilemma for consumers.  The eReaders are great for reading books with, but they still have their phones (great for many applications and for making calls but not so good to read books on), and their notebooks which are too big and too bulky with reasonably short battery life to be considered as the ideal book reader. Notebooks are, however, great for many other things neither the phone nor the eReader can do.  It seems that even in this day and age, the more you expect from a device, the bulkier it becomes.

Enter Apple, or at least, the Apple rumour mill (and what a massively successful virtual PR machine it is).  It appears that everybody thinks they know what Apple’s next ‘killer’ product will be and the tabloids are rife with descriptions of the iSlate.  If you believe them, it will be a thin device with a 10” touch screen using the same technology as the iPhone.  It will run iPhone applications and display books, magazines and newspapers in living colour.  It will have WiFi capability to download the content and will sing and dance on command.  OK, so the last part is something I made up.  But don’t believe any of this gumph.  Mr Jobs and has team have a habit of introducing new devices that nobody has predicted and with features no-one could have dreamt of.  If he does announce the iSlate (and I bet that will not be it’s name) on January 27 it will not be as the experts predict.  But who wants yet another device?  It will have to be mighty functional to attract the mass market, surely?

For the telecoms community the air around January 27 should be filled with trepidation.  If Apple does actually come up with another ‘killer’ device, it is highly likely that Apple will use its well established OTT (over the top) distribution model to sell direct to its customers.  Operators may find themselves, again, as the conduit for application and content delivery, and not necessarily sharing in the revenues it generates.  Only time will tell.