Apple has filed for a European design trademark which may provide a tantalising glimpse of the company's long-awaited tablet computer.
The filing, made in May this year but only published this week, covers a "handheld computer" and contains sketches of what look like an iBook screen minus the body of the computer.
The paperwork was handled by Leeds, UK-based patent and trademark attorneys Urquhart-Dykes and Lord.
The filing lists Apple CEO Steve Jobs and the company's industrial design chief, Jonathan Ive. It also refers to Daniele De Iuliis, Richard Howarth, Eugene Whang, Matthew Rohrbach, Bart Andre, Calvin Seid and Christopher Stringer all of key members of Apple's industrial design team, with the Power Mac G5, iPod, 17in and 12in PowerBook G4, and others under their belt.
Hints that Apple might be working on such a product emerged in 2003 when a source close to Taiwanese contract manufacturer Quanta claimed that the company had been hired by Apple to build what was dubbed a "wireless display".
Jobs has consistently downplayed claims that Apple is working on a PDA, and given the state of the world PDA market, it wouldn't make much sense for it to do so. Doubly so given how well the iPod works as a portable personal information carrier.
Jobs has similarly poo-poo'd suggestions that the company should offer a video iPod. Again, we agree - video simply isn't an application as well suited to portable players as music is. However, that doesn't mean that there's not room for a larger, house-bound mobile video system, and we've mooted a system comprising a wireless display terminal connected to a base iMac via 802.11g before.
Apple's "handheld computer" design registration sounds more like a PDA, but it looks like the home entertainment tablet system mentioned above.
Back in November 2003, our old pal Matthew Rothenberg at eWeek let the cat out of the bag with a "hunch" that Apple had seeded prototype tablet Macs with developers. The device used Mac OS X's Inkwell handwriting recognition technology and a healthy amount of knowledge picked up during the development of the Newton OS. Inkwell has been a part of Apple's system software since September 2002's release of Mac OS X 10.2. So far, only graphics tablet users have been able to do anything with it.
Matt later refined his hunch to encompass a "device that superficially resembles a large iPod with an 8in diagonal screen, lacks a keyboard, packs USB and FireWire ports, and runs Mac OS X along with a variety of multimedia goodies".
His January 2004 launch window has long since passed. But Apple may finally about to bring it to market.
The device is certainly a logical extension of what it's been doing with iTunes and AirPort Express. While its mini wireless access point is good for streaming audio from a host Mac to a hi-fi, it lacks a local control unit. It's tempting to view this latest design filing as the basis for just such a device.
Indeed, the upcoming new iMac is said to sport an all-in-one design with the system board, hard drive etc. mounted on the back of the monitor LCD. Only the suggested 17in and 20in displays indicate that the new machine isn't as portable as the tablet concept.
Instead, then, we might be seeing an 'iMac Jr.' in the not too distant future, equipped to work with both iTunes - and perhaps other iLife apps, such as iPhoto - and AirPort Express to deliver Mac-stored music, photography and video wirelessly to your hi-fi and TV.
August's Apple Expo Paris may prove more exciting than previously thought. ®
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