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Gallery: 10 Apple patents to watch

Silicon.com has rounded up and rated 10 of the most interesting and absurd patent applications submitted by Apple in recent years.
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By ZDNet UK on
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Perhaps more than any tech company, Apple continues to surprise and delight with its innovative products.

The concepts behind many of these are patented - so to get a glimpse into the inner workings of the Apple design team, silicon.com's Nick Heath has rounded up and rated 10 of the most interesting and absurd patent applications submitted by Apple in recent years.

Many of these ideas will never see the light of day but they all either amuse or hint at what could be.

Clamshell iPhone
An intriguing design for an alternative iPhone, the flip device is essentially a clamshell handset with two touchscreens - one of them transparent. The patent uses the phrase "dual-sided trackpad" to describe the technology for the device. Basically, the lower half of the handset is transparent and can be folded shut over the top half, which represents the as-is iPhone display. The transparent half can be used as a touch control whether it's folded up or not.

Looking at the diagrams, the lower half is dedicated to input and the top half is given over to the display. Chances are this is one for the bin, as Steve Jobs has complained about devices which dedicate half of their physical 'real estate' to input, whether the function in focus needs it or not.

Verdict: 2/10
Sounds a bit complicated and pointless.

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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The iPhone 'nano'
Considering Apple's never-ending quest to make its products smaller, it's possible an iPhone 'mini' or 'nano' might make an appearance at some point. The main problem with this design is the input mechanism. The soft keyboard and intuitive spelling prediction make the iPhone a reasonably good interface for typing.

However, reduce the display size by half and you're left with a keyboard usable by only the most diminutive of woodland folk. Not to fear, you've clearly forgotten that an iPhone has a back to it, which is an ideal place for a second interface, which you can manipulate while looking at the front.

Verdict: 3/10
Sounds bonkers because it is. However, given Apple's minimalist design approach it's likely only a matter of time before a more diminutive iPhone is available.

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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The rotary-dial iPhone
Yet another possibility for the iPhone 'wee'. The patent indicates an iPod-type device with a click-wheel rotary-style dialling mechanism. Coincidentally, it also looks similar to the 'joke slide' Steve Jobs flashed up on the big screen at the launch of the original iPhone.

Verdict: 0/10
Naff.

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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An iPhone with Flash, MMS, Java and everything else
The iPhone continues to be criticised for lacking features like Flash compatibility and the ability to send MMS picture messages.

This patent, which was published shortly before the release of the iPhone 3G this year, features those things plus a dedicated blogging client, Java, Windows Media support and video calls.

The reality? The Apple SDK forbids plug-ins, much to Adobe's chagrin. And Windows Media on an iPhone?

Verdict: 4/10
Apple is probably just covering its bases as it takes elements on board with new iPhone iterations. (Note: there's no mention of cut-and-paste.)

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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Click-wheel keyboard
The click-wheel proved to be a usability revelation on the iPod, allowing users to scroll through huge lists of albums, artists and songs with a single digit.

Considering Apple is phasing out the beloved click-wheel on devices in favour of trackpads and touchscreens, introducing a click-wheel keyboard seems an unlikely move. It would represent a rather neat way of scrolling through large amounts of text, though.

Verdict: 3/10
Not likely, though it has some nice potential applications.

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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MacBooks with massive trackpads
The latest MacBooks feature bigger trackpads than ever, offering an increasing number of touch-based controls for nimble-fingered users. In this patent, the trackpad seems to span the entire width of the laptop, adding a wider range of touch controls.

This is an interesting one as it may be an upgrade of an earlier idea that involved hot-swappable physical laptop keyboard elements, which allowed users to add input devices like piano keyboards and a mini mixing console. These days, since soft interfaces are the new hard interfaces, this is the logical evolution.

Verdict: 6/10
The iPhone and other touchscreen devices have demonstrated that similar controls can be integrated into soft interfaces. And why not?

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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Personal area networks
This patent sets out the vision for a "personal area network" that uses RFID chips in clothes, cars, houses and pretty much everything else to 'talk' to one another and connect to the internet.

The patent describes devices with both short range (wi-fi/Bluetooth) and long range (Edge, 3G etc) communications capabilities which would be able to make connections with nearby modules and access the web - a product marketer's dream, basically.

Whether anyone else would want their car and stereo talking surreptitiously to sales bots or their underwear connecting to the web without express permission is another matter.

Verdict: 6/10
The iPod-Nike technology is already here. Next stop: your handbag (or man-bag).

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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Mac tablet
The arrival of a Mac tablet is rumour that simply refuses to die. But so far, zilch.

It's not hard to understand why it's failed to appear. Tablet PCs have hardly set the world alight. Tablet sales represent a tiny percentage of global PC sales and Apple commands somewhere between five and eight per cent market share for the whole PC market. The math isn't very convincing.

But this line drawing with its hideously misshapen hand might provide some hope for those who want to believe.

Verdict: 4/10
Stranger things have happened but fan-boy lust aside, it's not clear why Apple would want to move down this path. Tablet PCs are niche and the iPhone and iPod touch are already tablets of a sort.

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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Mac tablet with iMac docking station
The piece de resistance of Apple patents.

As gloriously mad as a sack full of otters, this patent shows a computer with a 'standard' iMac design. Standard, that is, other than the fact it has a separate tablet computer that slides into its body behind the screen.

For those who need a computer version of the famous festive dish the Turducken, this is it.

Verdict: 2/10
Ground control to Major Tom? Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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Chameleon Mac
Have you ever been put off buying an iPod or Mac because of the limited range of colours on offer? Hasn't everybody?

This patent application for an "Active enclosure for a computing device", published in 2004, will solve this criticism forever. The patent describes a "computing device [which] includes a housing having an illuminable portion. The computing device also includes a light device disposed inside the housing. The light device is configured to illuminate the illuminable portion".

Essentially, this leaves you with a computer with thousands of LEDs under a translucent skin that turns your Mac into a chameleon-like beast that can change colour or pattern according to the user's whim. It's the ultimate technology fashion statement - a computer that can be accessorized with anything.

Verdict: 2/10
We want to believe but it's not likely anytime soon with anodised aluminium enclosures carved out of solid blocks of metal being the order of the day both for Apple's manufacturing and marketing.

Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

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