What Apple's patents reveal about its plans

30th Apr 2011 | 09:00

What Apple's patents reveal about its plans

MacBook touch, iPad Air and iPhone nano on the way?

What Apple's patents reveal about its plans

For anybody who wants to know what a company is thinking, just look at its patent portfolio. Patents are about protection: without them there's nothing to stop your rivals from copying your best ideas and making money from your hard work.

If you patent your revolutionary unicorn-powered laptop and a rival copies you, you'll be able to sue them until they squeak - and possibly get their product pulled from the shelves too.

Smart companies patent everything, and Apple is a smart company - so a trawl through Apple's worldwide patent applications can uncover future products.

Back in 2006, patent application 20,060,268,528 showed what was described as a "portable computing device capable of wireless communications... [that] is a media player". A few months later, Steve Jobs unveiled it: the iPhone.

If you'd seen the patents Apple was filing in 2004 and 2005, the iPad wouldn't have been a big surprise either.

There was the patent application for a touchscreen that can "detect multiple touches or near touches that occur at the same time and at distinct locations"; one for "virtual input device placement on a touchscreen user interface"; one for "activating virtual keys of a touchscreen virtual keyboard" and "Electronic Device - Design Patent", a 2005 application that looks awfully like everybody's favourite tablet.

So can you use the patent offices as crystal balls for Apple kit? Yes and no. Applying for a patent doesn't mean you'll do anything with it; a firm's patent portfolio can include tangents, abandoned ideas and inventions that nobody knows what to do with.

It can also include patent applications designed to frustrate competitors - the first firm to patent an obvious idea can charge everybody else who wants to use it - or as a form of insurance, with companies patenting far-fetched ideas on the off-chance that something might come of it a few years down the line.

And patenting inventions is a slow process: in some cases they aren't granted and published until long after the invention goes on sale, meaning they're not much use for predicting the future. For example, the patent for last year's iPad Dock didn't surface until December.

Browsing Apple's patents is a lucky dip, but it's given us lots of ideas about the sort of products we might see from Cupertino in the future, so we thought we'd share a few of the best here.

The iMac touch

iMac touch

Description

Imagine owning an iMac with a glasses-free 3D display, which turns into a multi-touch iOS device with a single push.

What is it?

It's an iMac with three key improvements: an iPad-style multi-touch screen, a hinged base that enables you to lay the screen flat on your desk or have it vertical like a traditional display, and a rippled, 3D-capable display that uses head tracking to adjust the on-screen 3D effect so it remains pin-sharp.

When it's upright the iMac is a desktop Mac; fold it down and you can use it like an iPad.

Patents used

Transitioning Between Modes of Input, WIPO WO/2010/006210, July 2009

Three-dimensional Display System, USPTO 7,843,449, November 2010

Multi-dimensional Desktop, USPTO application 20080307360, December 2008.

Why we're excited

There's a fundamental problem with having touchscreen on a desktop computer - that is it gives you very sore arms. Prodding away at a vertical screen might be fine for cash machines, information kiosks and other devices you'll only use for short periods, but for serious applications it simply isn't comfortable or accurate enough. And that's why touchscreen PCs have never taken off.

By bringing the screen to a comfortable working height, however, the iMac touch would solve that problem. We already know that OS X Lion is bringing the best of iOS to OS X; so why not bring the best bits of the iPad to the iMac too?

As for 3D, we're not convinced that 3D can become mass-market when it needs ridiculous specs, but glasses-free 3D in a family-friendly machine is a different proposition altogether.

The 3D display patent describes using a projector rather than a normal computer screen, but it's one of several 3D patents that include 3D OS interfaces, so Apple's clearly thinking about 3D Macs. If anyone can make desktop 3D attractive, it's definitely Apple.

A mightier Mac mini

Mac mini

Description

This would be a completely wireless computer where even the power might be delivered by wireless induction rather than via a traditional cable.

What is it?

Apple's Computer Systems patent "may provide an entirely new and revolutionary category of computer systems", that is a "desk-free computer". This would use a projector rather than a traditional display.

And then you can factor in a wireless keyboard, which also works as a multi-touch input device, with tiny cameras monitoring your fingers to see whether you're typing, pinching or zooming. Put all of that together and you've got something really quite interesting…

Patents used

Computer Systems and Methods with Projected Display, USPTO application 20100079468, September 2008.

Image Processing for Camera Based Motion Tracking, USPTO application 20110006991, January 2011.

Why we're excited

Imagine a hybrid between the Apple TV and the Mac mini - a cloud-based hybrid that takes the Apple TV's minimalism a step further by banishing every single cable, including the one to your monitor or TV.

Apple imagines an ingenious device whose primary display comes via a projector, enabling you to stick it wherever suits: on a shelf, behind the sofa, on the ceiling… everything would be wireless, with the possible exception of the power cable - although power might even ultimately be delivered wirelessly using induction charging.

The Apple TV already receives its content wirelessly, so it isn't much of a stretch to imagine a future Mac accessing cloud-based software too. Remember the enormous data centre Apple's been building?

Of course, you wouldn't want to control an entire computer with your Apple Remote. However, you might be able to use your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad in the same way you can use them with an Apple TV.

Alternatively, we've come up with a very different kind of keyboard: Tiny cameras track your finger movements and can tell if you're typing or making iPad-style gestures.

MacBook touch, iPad Air, iPhone nano

The MacBook touch

Macbook touch

Description

Imagine a MacBook Air that becomes an iPad when you slide the display flat. Sounds great, doesn't it?

What is it?

A convertible MacBook with an integrated multi-band 3G/4G radio, carbon-fibre reinforced housing and a cooling system where the laptop's lid cools the processor. And it folds to become an iPad.

Patents used

Application Programming Interfaces for Scrolling Operations, USPTO application 20100325575, January 2007.

Reinforced Device Housing, USPTO application 20100289390, May 2009.

Methods and Apparatus for Cooling Electronic Devices Using Thermoelectric Cooling Components, USPTO application 20100050658, March 2010.

Methods and Apparatus for Cooling Electronic Devices Using Thermally Conductive Hinge Assemblies, USPTO application 20100053885, March 2010.

Antennas for Wireless Electronic Devices, USPTO 7,804,453, September 2010.

Dielectric Window Antennas for Electronic Devices, USPTO application 20100321526, June 2009.

Why we're excited

Apple's scrolling patent application includes diagrams of "a laptop device with a keyboard… the laptop device can be converted into a tablet" by sliding the display frame - the touchscreen bit - over the keyboard. Forget the arm-breaking Tablet PCs of the last decade and think MacBook Air.

In fact, think of a carbon-fibre MacBook Air: carbon fibre is as tough as metal and as light as plastic, but prone to cracking. Apple's patent application appears to have the solution: using multiple layers or a carbon-fibre frame so that the fibres don't all run in the same direction.

Other patents detail integrated 3G/4G radios in MacBook-style devices, possibly using the Apple logo as the antenna. Cooling systems might not be as glamorous, but they're important - which is why Apple's filed plenty of patents for cooling systems such as liquid-cooled laptops.

One of the most interesting ones uses the Peltier Effect, which can cool metal by passing an electric current through two different metals. Apple has also patented fan-free laptop cooling that dissipates heat through the laptop's hinge.

The iPad Air

iPad air

Description

A lightweight, carbon fibre-encased iPad with a shape-shifting screen that can handle not just touch but waves and pen input too.

What is it?

An iPad whose display can "grow" real keys and whose touch sensors can interpret 3D gestures as well as 2D ones. The combination of haptic feedback and hover sensing could make Apple's tablet even more magical, and artists might like a pressure-sensitive pen that can overcome the limitations of low-res touch screens. It might even have an integrated stand.

Patents used

Detecting and Interpreting Real-World and Security Gestures on Touch and Hover Sensitive Devices, USPTO 7,877,707, January 2011.

Stylus Adapted For Low Resolution Touch Sensor Panels, USPTO application 20100006350, January 2010.

User Interface Having Changeable Topography, USPTO application 20100162109, June 2010.

Reinforced Device Housing, USPTO application 20100289390, May 2009.

Why we're excited

We like the iPad a lot, but, as we've all since discovered, its glossy glass screen isn't the best surface for touch-typing or gaming. However, the "changeable topography" patent application has a possible solution.

It presents a screen or trackpad that can "grow" buttons or other interface elements as required. It couldn't be made of glass though - as it's too solid - but would consist of "changeable nodes" that can form recognisable, tactile shapes. Such nodes might be controlled by tiny motors, or they might be made of a substance that expands or contracts when stimulated by an electrical, magnetic or chemical actuator.

That's not Apple's only interface idea. Building on the concept of multi-touch, its plans for "Touch and Hover Sensitive Devices" could interpret gestures such as a tap-and-hover, a "hitchhiking gesture" or even a thumbs-up.

And the pen? Steve Jobs may have mocked stylus-based tablets in the past, but that doesn't mean Apple won't introduce an artist-friendly pen input to the iPad. A pressure-sensitive stylus would be a boon in imaging apps.

The iPhone nano

iPhone nano

Description

An incredibly small, cheap iPhone - think iPod nano with phone features - that jumps between networks and doubles as an electronic wallet.

What is it?

A super-small iPhone that supplements the familiar touchscreen with a second touch-sensitive panel on the back, enabling you to control the device with fingers and thumbs simultaneously. When you're using the rear screen, you'll "see" your fingers on the front screen: it's not transparent, though, it's just a clever idea for a cursor.

The phone includes a Universal SIM that uses the best available network provider, which could change throughout the day according to where you are.

Patents used

Back-Side Interface for Hand-Held Devices, USPTO application 20070103454, May 2007.

Handheld Computing Device, USPTO 7,724,532, May 2010.

Dynamic Carrier Selection, USPTO 7,885,654, February 2011.

Motion Based Input Selection, USPTO application 20100042954, November 2009.

Why we're excited

Imagine an iPhone that's the size of the current iPod nano. It probably wouldn't provide the full iOS apps experience - the iPod nano doesn't either - but it'd be capable of sending texts, checking email, playing media and all the usual smartphone stuff.

If you combine the iPhone's touchscreen with the touch-sensitive rear described in Apple's 2007 patent, you've found the solution to making the iPhone smaller yet easy to use. Similar technology is in the forthcoming PlayStation Portable replacement, Sony's NGP.

The Universal SIM could be bad news for mobile operators, as it suggests Apple is thinking of becoming an MVNO, a Mobile Virtual Network Operator. According to the patent, the phone would send a request for data to "a mobile virtual network operator server", which might ask networks to bid for your business.

Apple also fancies turning your iPhone into an electronic wallet - but it has bigger ambitions too. Its Motion Based Input Selection patent application describes NFC-enabled phones acting as electronic tickets and even security passes.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 233

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