"Finger painting is fun when you're five years old. But when you start getting into it, you're going to pick up a pen." That's the philosophy of Andreas Haas, creator of the Modbook and the newly minted CEO of Modbook Inc, on why users would choose a Modbook over an iPad. Modbook Inc. is technically a new company, but you have probably heard the name before—the Modbook, a MacBook transmogrified into tablet form with a pen and drawing tablet built into the display, was sold through Haas' previous company, Axiotron from 2008 until about 2010. At that time, the company and its Modbook products largely fell off the radar, and most users assumed it was due to the then-new iPad that had made its debut in early 2010. But that was not the case, according to Haas, who has now come out of hiding in order to reintroduce the world to his creation.
"When I started Axiotron, we had a great team and the company was fine. We had a great run until we went public—two weeks later, Lehman Brothers went belly up and took us down along with the financial system. Access to capital was a huge problem," Haas told Ars. "In order for me to continue on my vision of creating a tablet computer for the creative industry, the only way to do it was to create a new company."
Indeed, we had spent nearly two years trying to dig into what was going on at Axiotron. Aside from the "iPad killed the Modbook" theory, we had begun to hear rumors that Axiotron had run into legal issues—possibly even with Apple. But those rumors were completely false, contends Haas. He says that he and Modbook have always had a healthy relationship with Apple, and that there were no legal issues involved in the company's two-year stumbling block. "As soon as the ModBook came out, Apple came to us and asked us to become a proprietary solution provider," he said. "That didn't end up working out, but we were moved to a developer contract. We are now an Apple 'developer' and we have a great working relationship."
The new Modbook: same as the old Modbook?
Aside from the company's financing—which is now entirely private—Haas' new company is largely the same as the old one. And so is the product, at least in its core values. Modbook Inc. debuts on Thursday with a newly updated version of the Modbook Pro, which not only sports more modern specs than the old versions of the device, but also a completely new enclosure. The base specs start at a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor with up to 16GB of RAM and either a 1TB hard drive or a 960GB SSD, with a SuperDrive and Intel HD 4000 graphics. That can be bumped up to a 2.9GHz Core i7 processor as well, and all machines come with the standard MacBook Pro battery as well as a MagSafe power adapter.
But it's not just the internal specs that are new—in practice, the 2012 Modbook Pro is nothing like the Modbook of 2008 through 2010.
"We changed our approach as to how we integrate the system," Haas told Ars. "We used to build it, electronically, very close to the base system. Not only was that tricky to do, but when Apple changed motherboards, it also brought up more possibilities for failure on our end. This time around, we asked 'what's the best idiot-proof way to do this?'"
The answer was that the company now seals all of the Modbook's external connections into the internal device, a modified 13" MacBook Pro with a custom Wacom digitizer built into the display. The idea is to offer creative professionals a way to work on a "real" computer while still offering them a tablet-like experience—a sort of Frankenstein between the iPad and a normal MacBook Pro.
"We don't have the glossy screen that's on every other tablet out there, because while it's great for hands, it's not so much for drawing," Haas said. "We also improved the digitizer from the previous Modbook, and there's much improved shielding on the inside. The whole thing has been improved to make it even better and allow us to deal with whatever motherboard Apple might throw at us, and get the best possible pen digitizer experience on the screen. We're still the only ones that have 512 pressure levels, too—nobody else does that."
What about the iPad?
We reviewed the original Modbook in 2008, roughly two years before the iPad would make its public debut. And when the iPad was released, we were sure the Modbook had seen its last days. But Haas insists that they exist in entirely different markets despite both being "tablets," and the iPad actuallyhelps the Modbook succeed in the market.
"I'm looking at all these tablets out there, like the iPad, and seeing the seeds of a future Modbook Pro user," Haas said. "Almost everyone has an iPad or iPhone. I wouldn't want to live without it. But as a company, we are looking at a very distinct niche. The creative industry does not have a product that meets their need to draw on a real computer's screen and have it be portable. It's just not out there."
Haas began listing off a number of ways in which the modern Modbook Pro has an advantage over the iPad. Screen size is a big one, but so is the bezel around the screen. "There is quite a bit of a bezel around the display. The reason it's there is because we looked at how people use the devices and they need something to rest their hand on," Haas told me. "If you look at an iPad, there's nothing to rest your hand on. If you use a pen, you don't have a lot of room until your hand falls off! And when you go into software differences and a full-blown Mac system, that changes everything too."
It's important to note that Haas is no stranger to The Apple Way™. And the Modbook Pro—as odd as it seems—is directly inspired by some past Apple projects. Haas used to work at Apple during the long-gone Newton days, before Steve Jobs returned to the company and killed off the project for lack of sales. But the idea stuck with Haas long enough for him to launch not one, but two companies in order to create the product he believes in.
"I wanted to make a pen-based Mac ever since I worked at Apple. I remember there was a test device, and Andy Warhol had an opportunity to look at it, and he just loved it. That's what I wanted to do," Haas explained. "The pen went to the Newton, and then that went away. I wanted to bring back this device for artists because of how I saw Andy using it. And once the Modbook came out, we started hearing from people who use it in the same way."
In fact, the creative pros who have come to rely on the Modbook (Pro) don't even necessarily use it as a Mac. Thanks to the advent of Boot Camp, Haas says there are plenty of users who install Windows 7 on their Modbooks so they can continue to draw on a solid, tablet-like computer—just with another operating system. "We were literally looking over the shoulder of people who use the device to see what they did with it. Modbook is actually based in the same building as an animation studio, and sometimes you see Modbook and Modbook Pros in there."
Haas went on to explain that the creative industry can be very flexible with what technologies artists use, and they are usually quite happy to be able to use whatever operating system they're most accustomed to—whether that's OS X or Windows. "In fact, one of the Modbook's largest single user base is using it exclusively on Windows!"
Learning from past mistakes
There are some things the new Modbook Inc. won't be doing with its newly relaunched Modbook Pro. For one, Haas swears the company will never again write checks it can't cash regarding specs, ship dates, or anything else. This is something Axiotron did quite a bit before the launch of the original Modbook—Haas credits this to pressure from investors—and it's also why the current Modbook has no formal ship date yet. Haas told Ars that the company plans to ship the new Modbook Pro in "early fall," but that a solid ship date is likely to come within several weeks.
Haas also says the company won't be turning a MacBook Air into a Modbook Air anytime soon—a question I asked him in January of 2008 when the MacBook Air first came out, and asked again as we chatted this week.
"The answer is a number: 16," he said. "The question is: how far can you build up the main memory of the system? The Air is limited to 8GB of RAM and the MacBook Pro can go up to 16GB, and we have to ask ourselves where this device is going to end up. The people who use the Modbook Pro are going to use Photoshop, Illustrator, and Final Cut Pro. The core group is creative professionals, and they want three things: power, a large screen, and portability."
Haas says there are other demographics who have taken up the Modbook besides just creative pros—he told me a story about disabled users taking a liking to the Modbook Pro's horsepower (to process accessibility features) while remaining lap-friendly and portable. But he pointed out that even those users tend to want the same basic things out of a tablet computer. Or at least they want those things out of the Modbook; they can use their iPads for something else.
"We just focus on the core functionality of the product. Our goal is to build the damn best tablet computer for the creative industry, and anything else is icing on the cake," Haas said.