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Innovation

Apple hints at possible pen-based tablet

Pretty much anything that includes the words "Apple" and "tablet" in the same sentence is going to get the attention of the blognoscenti, but when it comes from Apple itself, people pay attention.Exhibit A is 9 to 5 Mac's piece today about a patent by Apple for a "Pen-based input tablet" (pictured above).
Written by Jason D. O'Grady, Contributor on

Pretty much anything that includes the words "Apple" and "tablet" in the same sentence is going to get the attention of the blognoscenti, but when it comes from Apple itself, people pay attention.

Exhibit A is 9 to 5 Mac's piece today about a patent by Apple for a "Pen-based input tablet" (pictured above). While Apple's intentionally generic lineart drawings are quick to activate the saliva glands, they have to be taken with a healthy dose of reality.

The patent application, filed on July 17, 2009 and published today in the US Patent & Trademark Office, reveals what Apple refers to as a "pen-based input tablet." Most previous leaks/rumors have painted Apple's mythical tablet as a touch-sensitive device that detects input from a finger – essentially an iPod touch touch/iPhone with a larger touchscreen panel. This latest Apple patent is one of the few that refers to a pen or stylus, rather than using touch, as many expect.

Steve Jobs went out of his way to diss the lowly stylus when the iPhone was announced in January 2007. From the transcript:

...Oh, a stylus, right? We're going to use a stylus. No. Who wants a stylus. You have to get em and put em away, and you lose em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let's not use a stylus. We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with -- born with ten of them. We're going to use our fingers. We're going to touch this with our fingers.

Check out bullet number two below.

http://www.smartphonethoughts.com/images/Temporale-20070109-AppleIphone.jpg

The problem is that Apple's latest patent is less about the hardware and more on the software. The pen-based input tablet patent focuses mostly on “acquiring and organising ink information."

An ink manager running at a computer system receives ink information entered at a pen-based input/display device and accumulates the ink information into ink strokes. The ink manager communicates with a handwriting recognition engine and includes an ink phrase termination engine that is configured to detect the occurrence of one or more ink phrase termination events by examining the ink information. Upon the occurrence of an ink phrase termination event, the ink manager notifies the handwriting recognition engine and organizes the preceding ink strokes into an ink phrase data structure.

So it's just a re-hash of Apple's Inkwell handwriting recognition technology then? Well, yes and no.

Mac OS X has shipped with handwriting recognition service called Ink Services since Mac OS 10.2, a.k.a Jaguar. Formerly known as Inkwell, the technology was built on the Newton’s recognition engine. Most people don’t know about Ink Services because it lays dormant unless you connect a supported graphics tablet. Even then you have to dig in System Preferences to find it.

Archive.org reports that Apple's Inkwell page (since removed) was posted between February 2004 and November 2007. There's a nice cached version of it here.

While it's possible that Ink Services could be tapped for the project, it's suspect give how much success Apple has had with it's current raft of touchy-feely devices. Apple's tablet will most likely be an extension of the iPod touch and rely on touch-based input.

I think that Apple is patent-spamming the USPTO just in case they decide to add pen-based services in the future, or to throw us off the scent. Although Apple files patents with reckless abandon, it releases products like fine wine: when it's ready.

Tip: 9 to 5 Mac

Macworld slide: Smartphone Thoughts

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