Apple Planning Video-Call iPhoneApple Planning Video-Call iPhone
Recent stories on Apple's iPhone patent have focused on Cupertino's threatened legal action against Palm, which is launching the iPhone-like Pre smartphone. But a closer examination of the <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/galleries/showImage.jhtml?galleryID=297">Apple patent</a> yields much more interesting news. Namely, Apple is considering adding a video record feature to the iPhone -- an omission users have long complained about -- and it may soon become a handheld videophone platform,
February 2, 2009
Recent stories on Apple's iPhone patent have focused on Cupertino's threatened legal action against Palm, which is launching the iPhone-like Pre smartphone. But a closer examination of the Apple patent yields much more interesting news. Namely, Apple is considering adding a video record feature to the iPhone -- an omission users have long complained about -- and it may soon become a handheld videophone platform, with support for mobile video-conferencing calls.Those are the inferences you can make if you believe that the claims Apple has put into its patent relates to stuff it intends to turn into products. The video-call feature is the boldest one; a potential market game changer, which could knock competitors like Palm's Pre or Dell's planned smartphone back off the front pages. (The other feature, video record, is just a natural extension of the current still camera, and is probably something it could do now, if Apple so chose.)
I've scoured the iPhone patent and have come up with the verbiage and images which indicate Apple's video intentions. Interestingly, Apple's United States patent, which is number 7,479,949, has the rather grasping title of "Touch screen device, method, and graphic user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics." I guess that's intended to lock up a whole heap of intellectual property and prevent any competitors -- like Pre-maker Palm -- from doing a touch-screen phone unless they can figure out how to launch calls via the user's brain-wave commands. Let me give you the summary first, before I get to the details which prove my point. Namely, what's interesting is not that there are mentions of video recording peppered throughout the patent (though there are). What's really significant is that when you take all the video mentions as a whole, it's clear that Apple intends to seriously beef up the iPhone's video recording capabilities. Even more boldly, I believe Apple intends to go well beyond the simple video clip recording that every still camera today has anyway. It intends to turn the iPhone into a handheld video conferencing device! That'd make the iPhone even more powerful than it is today. So rather than shooting its whole wad at one time -- like with the intro of the 3G iPhone -- I'm guessing Apple is waiting until there's both a sag in demand and a more robust build-out of nationwide 3G network capabilities. (Currently, many major metro areas have 3G, but one can't really say 3G is fully deployed throughout the country.) At that point, they'll debut the new, conferencing-capable handset and launch another round of iPhone fanaticism. With some powerful plan seemingly in the wings, it makes one wonder why Apple hasn't even dropped hints, the better to address the complaints of current users who've been lamenting the lack of a video recording function. (Of course, the answer to that one is easy. A mum Apple is simply Apple being Apple, in the Jobs era, anyway.) OK, so the proof is in the patent. Check out the reference to "digital video camera" in this paragraph from the patent's "Description of Embodiments" (aka, what's in the invention being patented) section: "The device supports a variety of applications, such as one or more of the following: a telephone application, a video conferencing application, an e-mail application, an instant messaging application, a blogging application, a photo management application, a digital camera application, a digital video camera application, a Web browsing application, a digital music player application, and/or a digital video player application." Here's a reference to video conferencing, buried amid a laundry list of features. "In some embodiments, the functions may include telephoning, video conferencing, e-mailing, instant messaging, blogging, digital photographing, digital videoing, Web browsing, digital music playing, and/or digital video playing. Instructions for performing these functions may be included in a computer-readable storage medium or other computer program product configured for execution by one or more processors." But wait; it gets even better. Apple has given some thought to camera angles. (Must be the Pixar influence.) At first I thought this was Apple answering the common complaint that users have trouble taking their own pictures, because the camera is on the back of the phone. I quickly realized that Apple probably doesn't care about that. What it does care about is that, for video conferencing to work, you need a forward-facing lens. Thus there's this in the patent: "In some embodiments, an optical sensor is located on the back of the device, opposite the touch screen display on the front of the device, so that the touch screen display may be used as a viewfinder for either still and/or video image acquisition. In some embodiments, an optical sensor is located on the front of the device so that the user's image may be obtained for videoconferencing while the user views the other video conference participants on the touch screen display. In some embodiments, the position of the optical sensor can be changed by the user (e.g., by rotating the lens and the sensor in the device housing) so that a single optical sensor may be used along with the touch screen display for both video conferencing and still and/or video image acquisition." OK, so there you have it, proof in the patent that Apple's thought through what it needs to do to make the iPhone video-recording and -conferencing capable. I believe we will see these features in the third-generation iPhone. Finally, I don't know enough about patent law to know what would happen if some other vendor -- for example, a Google phone maker -- attempted to launch these features before Apple did. I'm guessing, though, that we'd see a lawsuit.
Note the video record button in this diagram from Apple' s iPhone patent. (Click picture to enlarge, and to see 42 additional diagrams.)
Plans to broaden video play to support all formats are evident in this diagram from Apple' s iPhone patent. (Click picture to enlarge, and to see 42 additional diagrams.)
What's your take? Let me know, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at [email protected]. Like this blog? Subscribe to its RSS feed, here. For a mobile experience, follow my daily observations on Twitter. Check out my tech videos on this YouTube channel. Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.
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