Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Just a touchpad and a screen: A grand unified theory of Apple’s next big move

Apple's new multi-touch touchpad ...

"Ever since Apple’s chief financial officer, Peter Oppenheimer, referred to a “future product transition” during the company’s most recent earnings call, the tech news world has been abuzz. The most frenzied speculation has centered around a revision to the MacBook line. For some, the future holds a touchscreen MacBook or an ultra-portable tablet. Others envision a MacBook with a souped-up multi-touch touchpad made of glass positioned below or next to the keyboard. Since marginally informed speculation is the name of the game, I’m going to throw in some chips and say that most of this is likely off the mark.

Apple is out to send earthquakes through the market, make our jaws slacken and cash leap from our bank accounts and into its own. But I’m not sure any of the suggested possibilities would do this: A tablet, while still possible (even probable at some point) is too niche to be a huge deal, a larger multi-touch touchpad won’t knock many socks off and, for now, at least, 12-17″ touchscreens cost too much to make sense for all parties involved.

So what could Apple do that would compel Oppenheimer to speak of dramatic transitions and warn shareholders of an impending decrease in profit margins? Simple: It could take multi-touch to its logical next step, do away with the mouse and physical keyboard, replace it with one or two touchpads and change the way we interface with our machines.

Some people speculated about a multi-touch combination keyboard/touchpad when Apple released a patent for a dynamic touch surface last Fall (more on this later), so it surprises me that amidst all the speculation, this concept has not come back. VentureBeat’s MG Siegler has suggested that Apple would come up with some sort of next-generation interface and wondered about the relevance of a mouse when “you have the whole world at your fingertips?” A look at the string of Apple’s multi-touch patents strongly suggests that giving us a laptop that answers this question is the company’s goal.

We’ll start with the most obvious one: A patent for a wide touchpad on a portable computer. This diagram from the filing tells the story:"    (Continued via VentureBeat, Dan Kaplan)    [Ergonomics Resources]

Apple mult-touch interface patent. - Ergonomics

Apple mult-touch interface patent.

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