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The Apple Hardware Report: Can You Predict a New Product from a Patent?

I don’t think anyone disputes the fact that a company would like to get on the inside track of a new technology. If they come up with a new idea that seems to have commercial possibilities, they will patent that development in the U.S. or another country. It’s also common practice among people who care about such things to explore the various applications that were filed in search of something new and different, since this information has to be made public.

The mistake begins when you attempt to tie that invention to a real product. Take the iPhone, which is perhaps Apple’s most famous unannounced vaporware gadget. Folks attempt to analyze every single phrase in an Apple statement, particularly when it meets with financial analysts, to find evidence that the iPhone is in their future. Sometimes they find such evidence, although it seems, in retrospect, that they are grasping for straws.

When a new filing appears at the patent office that might indicate some sort of new mobile phone technology from Apple, whether it be the interface or something else, expectations rise far and wide. At the same time, some tech pundits will analyze the marketplace and tell you that Apple must get involved with its own mobile phone at some point in time, because that’s going to be the ultimate digital lifestyle gadget.

It is, of course, true, that the existing phones with music playing capabilities are pathetic, and even the Motorola models with iTunes are basically failures. Crafting Apple’s interface onto a product that was otherwise designed by other companies may have seemed to be a brilliant idea on paper, but it hasn’t worked that way in the real world. Therefore, Apple has to do the entire job all by itself.

So the patent watch persists. We know, for example, that Apple has already trademarked the name “iPhone,” and it seems to logical, so elemental. A recent filing covers voice recognition technology that might be applied to such a device.

However, there is a disconnect here, that all the Mac rumor sites and mainstream writers seem to forget. Apple and other technology companies are always working on new devices in their test labs. When they come up with an original concept, they will rush to the patent office to protect themselves. Certainly Apple has a big incentive, since it had to shell out $100 million to Creative because the latter got there first with certain elements for a music player interface.

So the patent filing is first and foremost a matter of self-defense. It won’t stop all the patent disputes, but it’ll at least help reduce them.

At the same time, many of those new products may simply end up on the cutting room floor. They won’t see the light of day, or the technology may end up being used in an entirely different fashion, one not apparent in the initial filing.

Some of you might remember a certain legal skirmish between Apple and some of the Mac rumor sites. It was all over a music interface device code-named “Asteroid.” Now it so happens that no such product has ever seen the light of day. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t built and tested, and perhaps even put on the release calendar at one point.

But there are third party products available that perform essentially the same functions, more or less. So perhaps Apple decided that it couldn’t make a difference.

Or maybe it was just a Trojan Horse all along, something designed to attract the leakers and smoke them out into the open. Not that it really worked. Based on the court rulings, it probably backfired, but it’s an idea that has a few inklings of possible reality in retrospect.

In the end, there may well be an iPhone someday. Maybe it’ll happen at the Macworld Expo in January, or maybe it’ll come at a later time. The iPhone has been expected for quite some time, and those hopes and dreams are resurrected every so often whenever there’s a new patent application that might reveal a telltale clue.

It’s also possible that Apple will decide that this is just not an arena worth getting involved with just yet, and that other elements need to be in place first. One is whether to offer the phone to operate with existing wireless carriers, or whether Apple will lease some network capacity from one of those companies and deliver its own boutique branded service. Of course, it’s also fair to say that such ventures haven’t really succeeded all that well in the past.

So the patent watch will continue. Maybe you will find some honest-to-goodness clues about Apple’s future product directions if you care to indulge yourself. Or maybe you’ll end up wasting your time. But have fun.