Patent and event reignite iPhone rumours

Apple's patent for a multifunction device would turn the iPod into a smartphone with few physical buttons

A newly published Apple patent application has reignited rumours of the almost mythical "iPhone", on the eve of a press event in San Francisco.

A device combining features of a phone and iPod has been expected for years, by rivals such as Motorola as well as supporters, and the rumours have been regularly fed by patents and trademarks filed by Apple.

Last week the US Patent and Trademark office published a patent application that Apple made in March, for a "multifunctional handheld device", that can switch between a music player, phone or PDA, among other things, using a touchscreen with "at most only a few physical buttons, keys, or switches".

The application, made in the name of Steven Hotelling, at legal firm Wong, Cabello, Lutsch, Rutherford, and Brucculeri (a name associated with previous Apple patent applications) has not yet been granted, and is subject to scrutiny for prior art. Online commentators have pointed out that multifunction handheld devices do exist already. The publishing of the patent has sparked discussion mainly because of the juxtaposition with the 12 September event. Apple, in characteristic form, declined to comment on rumours.

If Apple is planning to launch a phone, it is not short of advice on how to do it: the most interesting being a suggestion from the::unwired, that Apple should leapfrog beyond Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones, and make a smartphone. While the::unwired's Alfredo Padilla believes Apple will probably make its own operating system, he suggests it might be better to adopt the market-leading Symbian OS: " The one major area where Symbian does not do as well is in North America," says Padilla, "where Apple's name-recognition could quickly vault them past Palm and Windows Mobile."