There has been much discussion since Apple filed a multi-functional handheld device patent application yesterday. MacNN reports that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application depicting a cell phone capable of functioning in multiple modes: “The patent apparently describes an electronic device that can function as a cell phone, music player, video player, game player, camera, GPS receiver, 'hand top,' and a remote control. The device would function in multiple modes with the potential of a changing user interface.”
The document, originally filed in March of 2006, may hold clues to Apple's upcoming special event scheduled for September 12th, coinciding with the large mobile devices conference CTIA (industry watchers believe the company is also set to unveil a new full-length movie service via its iTunes Music Store along with a revamped widescreen video iPod).
So will the iPhone be the long-expected Swiss army knife of mobile communications – the iTunes/iPhoto/iChat/BlackBerry/Skype phone with USB 2.0 all built-in, music, pictures, and VoIP, ready to work with Mac or Windows? Pundits are skeptical as many questions remain: Which mobile phone networks would market the phone? And how could Apple refrain from relying on just one carrier? Does it even want to? One thing is evident: If Apple wants to dominate the mobile industry, it has to break into cell phones and establish the iPhone as the one and only “all-in-one” product. Given its brand, however, this is a risky move: The company is of course expected to do nothing less than rethink and redesign the whole notion of a cell phone (and thus the entire industry) as it did with the iPod and the music industry. It needs to be another “Form follows Apple” shift that goes beyond just the integration of various features into one handheld or a cool design innovation that tops the fashionable “thinism” of the Razr and its many copycats. So what could it be?
One scenario might be an extended version of iTunes that connects with the iPhone and serves not only as a contact list/directory but also as a social networking site combining music and video libraries, archived phone calls, ring tones, text messaging, video chat, and other key ingredients of the connected world. Alternatively, the break-through innovation might occur on the handheld side, for example with a button-free and voice recognition-enabled phone that is essentially a mini-mobile computer. The problem with this is: If Apple intends to create this kind of super-phone, how does it maintain its brand-critical design simplicity while providing the features of a PDA? But then again, at the end of the day, maybe Apple is just planning to make a better phone -- in the words of Apple’s SVP of design Jonathan Ive: “A preoccupation with differentiation is the concern of many corporations rather than trying to innovate and genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try and make something better” (in an interview with Design Museum).
Of course, the news about the Apple patent filing could also just turn out to be a deftly planned PR coup as the fiercemobilecontent blog suspects: “Oh how I just love watching Apple’s patent filings. Nothing gets the digerati more worked up than rumblings from the secretive compound in Cupertino.”