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Apple attempts to patent iPod-like ‘scroll-disk’ mouse

Coming to market sooner than we think?

Is Apple about to change the face of user-computer interaction? That's certainly one (albeit exaggerated) interpretation of the patent application the company filed in the US, and revealed by MacObserver.

The patent application, number 20030076303, can be read here. The headline date of the application is 24 April 2003, but the application's Filed field says 7 February 2002, so Apple may have been working on this for some time now.

Essentially, Apple's patent application details an iPod-style scroll-dial on the face of the mouse in place of the usual scroll-wheel. Apple argues rightly that this is more intuitive than a scroll-wheel, which operates only in the direction (up and down) of vertical scroll-bars or lists. Yes, a scroll-wheel can control horizontal scroll-bars, but it's counter-intuitive: the bars move left and right, but the wheel still moves up and down. Apple's disk rotates clockwise and counter-clockwise whether you're scrolling up and down a web page or horizontally through a Mac OS X Finder window in column view.

Another benefit the applications cites is that the user doesn't need to take his or her finger off the disk to continue scrolling - "ie. the disc can be rotated through 360 degrees of rotation without stopping" - unlike a scroll-wheel, which forces you to continually pull your finger off the wheel if you want to go beyond whatever arc of the wheel is exposed.

What's got the Mac community excited, however, is the possibility, mentioned in the application, of the disc doubling-up as a button, and they're inferring that this means Apple is getting ready to offer a two- or three-button mouse. Well, it wouldn't be before time. Even before Mac OS X, Apple implemented contextual menus, which are most effectively controlled by multi-button mice, but which Apple's preference for single-button jobs meant users needed to use a keyboard modifier button to activate.

Unfortunately, while the application does talk about using the scroll-disk as a button, it's clear that it's intended to be the mouse's main and only button.

On it's own the scroll-disc patent wouldn't be exactly exciting. It's not hard to imagine some Apple engineer turning his or her iPod over and thinking: hey, this would work as a mouse. Apple might well want to protect such a use for the future, either for itself, a licensing based revenue-generator or both.

However, this weekend we were sent basic technical diagrams of an alleged Apple device that does indeed merge iPod, scroll-disk based mouse and, bizarrely, phone. We weren't the only ones sent the pics, and we stress that we haven't been able to substantiate any of the claims made by our correspondent, and the spec., including the scroll-disk and 15-30GB of hard disk space, sounds like someone's compiled all the juiciest bits of recent iPod and 'mysterious Apple communications device' rumours. Ditto Mac OS X Panther's support for synchronising Home folders on multiple devices, which the iPod/phone/mouse apparently supports.

Of course, getting your Photoshop files via a Bluetooth or USB 1.1 connection wouldn't be much fun, so the mouse either has a FireWire or USB 2.0 cable, or 802.11 cable-free connection. USB 2.0 has backwards-compatibility issues, Wi-Fi has battery life problems.

And $499 seems awfully expensive for a mouse, even one with a phone and iPod built-in. Such a device certainly wouldn't be cheap. We can imagine Apple wanting to offer a high-end, designer handset, just as it offered a high-end, designer MP3 player, but while the latter market was up for grabs, the handset business already has some very well established players - and even they are having a hard time of it.

But then Apple's not beyond doing the unexpected, and a combined iPod/phone - the mouse bit seems a step too far - could be on the cards. But Apple has other fish to fry, and there are better markets for it to enter than the handset business. ®

Related Link

MacObserver: Dial Up The Great Mouse Button Debate: Apple Applies For Rotary Mouse Patent

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