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11/9/2006
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New Patents Point to Apple Phone

Apple applied for patents for an "actuating user interface for media player," technology that will likely replace the iPod scroll-wheel; and for a universal docking station, with speakers.

Two Apple patent applications published on Thursday by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lend further weight to rumors of a forthcoming Apple mobile phone.

The first, "Actuating user interface for media player," details the technology that will likely replace Apple's iPod scroll-wheel interface. Previous patent filings indicate that Apple has been working on a touch-screen interface that might suit a variety of portable devices.

The images that accompany the filing include a phone as a sample embodiment of the technology. While it's true that patent filings are written to be as broad as possible, the rationale offered in the filing for the use of a touch-screen over a scroll-wheel suggests that Apple's isn't just mentioning phones to cover its bases. Rather, the trend toward the convergence of hand-held devices -- think phone meets iPod -- demands a touch-screen if the device is going to be efficiently designed and usable.

The interface patent application describes the problem quite well. "The display actuator of the present invention is a perfect fit for small form factor devices such as hand held devices, which have limited space available for input interfaces, and which require central placement of input interfaces to permit operation while being carried around," the application states. "This is especially true when you consider that the functionality of hand-held devices have begun to merge into a single hand-held device (e.g., smart phones). At some point, there is not enough real estate on the device for housing all the necessary buttons and switches without decreasing the size of the display or increasing the size of the device, both of which leave a negative impression on the user. In fact, increasing the size of the device may lead to devices, which are no longer considered 'hand-held.'"

In other words, without a touch-screen, hand-helds begin to resemble carry-ons as more and more functions get added.

The second Apple patent filing published today, "Universal docking station for hand-held electronic devices," solves a problem that Apple doesn't really have ... yet.

The filing explicitly mentions phones among the possible hand-held devices that might fit in the universal dock. Again, Apple may just be keeping its options open. But without a phone as part of its future product lineup, why bother inventing a universal docking station when the current iPod dock handles iPods quite well?

It's also worth noting that the proposed universal docking station includes speakers, which would benefit either an iPod or a phone (and would probably annoy current makers of iPod speaker peripherals).

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