The Patent and the Reality

February 22nd, 2013

So there’s a report this week about a new patent application from Apple for a wearable watch-like device, which some are taking to demonstrate the reality behind Apple’s alleged plans to deliver this so-called iWatch in the very near future. Add to that the recent report that Apple has some 100 people working on the project,and you can almost believe you’ll be able to place your order for one in the very near future.

Now the technology described in that patent does appear to refer to some sort of accessory wearable device that will require a wireless connection (presumably Bluetooth) to your iOS gadget, such as an iPhone or an iPad. In other words, it won’t be able to do much by itself beyond displaying the date and time, and that may not take this particular concept very much beyond existing smartwatches, such as the i’m Watch, which starts at $399.

Aside from the price, my personal wish list for such a device includes device independence. It will contain the phone, the iPod capability (similar to an iPod shuffle), GPS, etc. In other words, a cool feature phone, without the niceties of the iPhone. It will probably not need Wi-Fi, and you won’t be able to browse and run apps on it, beyond Contacts, for example. Obviously the face of a watch, even a fairly large face, would not be suited for many iPhone functions.

Such an iWatch might use a speakerphone, so you can use it in the same fashion as Dick Tracy, the comic book character. I would think might also come with a Bluetooth headset, for more flexibility, so you aren’t forced to constantly bring the watch to your face to talk to someone.

But that’s just me. I do not pretend to have any insider information on whether there will be an iWatch, or on the feature set. But if it’s offered as a gussied up feature phone, at $299 per copy in several colors, it might just be the sort of low-end iPhone concept that would deliver an elegant Apple user experience, and become hugely popular around the world. That is, assuming people care about watches anymore. But having it depend on linking to another device is, to me, a non-starter.

The larger issue, however, is what to make of any new patent filing from Apple. The best you can determine is that the company is working on a host of new technologies in those world-famous secret test labs. But even if a product using those technologies never arrives — or is forked into a different product — it’s important for Apple to apply anyway. It’s a defensive act that ensures Apple will be given rights to their new inventions, assuming the patents are granted, and they usually are. Indeed, the new U.S. patent law will grant a patent to the first filer, even if that party isn’t the first to invent or use the technology.

But I’m fascinated by where the speculation about future Apple gear has moved. Last year, there was a whole lot of talk about a large gadget, an Apple smart TV set. Where Apple will take the initiative to conquer the living room is still a question mark, though it appears the Apple TV set top box is the most popular product of its kind right now.

Without any confirmation on where Apple moves next, the conversation turned to a much smaller gadget, low-cost iPhone, fueled by supposed reports from alleged informed sources. What sort of low-cost iPhone? Well, if you count the carrier subsidy, the “cheap” iPhone is the iPhone 4, because it’s free with a two-year commitment. But if you want to buy an unlocked version, prepare to pay from $400-450. Not so low-cost after all. If Apple could build one from scratch, using 2013 technologies rather than 2010, perhaps it would be possible to deliver a credible product for a “mere” $299 or so.

Or maybe the smallest gadget of all, the iWatch, would be designed to fill the demand for a cheaper iPhone by creating a whole new category of smartwatches. And considering that possibility does not for a moment depend on what sort of patents Apple has been issued or applied for lately.

Consider, for example, Apple’s filings on haptic feedback technologies for virtual keyboards. Haptic feedback in its raw sense, such as found on many Android smartphones, delivers a little vibration or “buzz” when you tap a key on a virtual keyboard. Supposedly this is designed to give you a semblance of the feeling that you’re actually typing on a physical keyboard. It even seems neat for a few seconds, until the endless vibration becomes annoying. It’s not as if it makes you a more accurate typist. In fact, when I tried the feature on a Samsung Galaxy S III, it didn’t survive more than a day before I switched it off — for good. But if Apple could somehow make you feel that you are really pressing a physical key, more or less, that would be a terrific development.

But it isn’t necessarily going to happen because Apple filed some patents applications.

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