Apple Could Include Stylus with Tablet PC, Suggests Patent Application

Apple's rumored tablet PC received another jolt of scuttlebutt when the blogosphere uncovered a patent application submitted by Apple for a "pen-based input system" that would facilitate handwriting on a touchscreen. Previous patent applications have suggested that the tablet PC, still unconfirmed by Apple, will offer a versatile touchscreen. Despite Apple's customary silence, both the media and potential Apple partners have been circulating rumors and ideas about the device for months.

Apple's much-rumored tablet PC could include a stylus for writing in addition to a touchscreen interface, according to both blogosphere rumors and a patent application filed by Apple.

As uncovered by blogs such as Apple Insider, Apple's patent application (20090279783) describes an "ink manager [that] interfaces between a pen-based input device, one or more applications (pen-aware or not) and one or more handwriting recognition engines executing on the computer system."

Originally filed on July 17, the patent application references previous attempts at creating a pen-based input system, particularly Pen Services for Windows 95 and Apple's own Newton project, and suggest "a need exists for improving the way in which ink data is organized so as to facilitate the recognition process and also to improve the association of ink data to particular data entry fields." A section of the application, Background of the Invention, makes frequent references to a tablet as both the input and output medium for such a pen-based system.

The patent under discussion would make such improvements through recognizing written phrases, as opposed to strokes, as a "suitable unit of data," and through steps that would let the computer's system recognize ink data more accurately.

Media and analysts have frequently linked many of Apple's recent applications to the development of the rumored tablet PC. A similar incident occurred in October, when many of the blogs that cover Apple noted a patent application filed in June 2009 for a touchscreen interface.

That patent application described a device whose screen could be manipulated by the user's fingers and palms, theoretically allowing for a broad range of activities including typing or drawing. The device's underlying infrastructure would facilitate the sensing of various hand configurations, and offer feedback without necessarily responding to a stray hand or finger touching the screen.

If both the touchscreen patent application and this newly uncovered stylus application both describe technologies being integrated into an Apple tablet, then the device in question will have a much more versatile interface than the one currently operating on Apple's iPhone or iPod Touch.

Despite Apple's continual refusals to acknowledge the tablet PC's existence, media and analysts nonetheless all but expect the company to debut the device sometime in 2010. This heightened sense of expectation is largely attributable to leaks from Apple's ostensible partners in the venture.

At the end of October, reports emerged that Bill Keller, an executive editor at The New York Times, had referred to "the impending Apple slate" during an off-the-record meeting with staff at TheTimesCenter in New York. A transcript of his remarks promptly appeared on the Website of the Nieman Journalism Lab, and the media seized on the word "slate" as synonymous with "tablet PC."

Adding fuel to that assumption were previous media reports, some coming from as far away as Australia, that Apple had approached various publishing houses to discuss porting their content onto a tablet PC. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald included executives hinting that they had discussed that very thing with Apple officials.

Seeking to fill the vacuum of official information surrounding the tablet PC, various analysts have hypothesized about the device's possible features. RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky suggested in an October research report that the tablet would retail for an estimated $599-$799, and include "a 7- to 10-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi, 16GB/32GB memory, etc."

Abramsky also suggested that the device could potentially "be tethered to an iPhone or incorporate an integrated 3G module for connectivity (and possibly be carrier-subsidized)." Those ideas were complemented in many ways by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who predicted a similar price-point and theorized that an Apple tablet PC could run either a modified version of the Mac OS X or else the iPhone OS.

Comments from Apple's potential partners have been mirrored by rumors allegedly originating from inside Cupertino itself. A Wall Street Journal story in August suggested that not only was Steve Jobs devoting the majority of his attention to the development of a tablet PC, but that he had killed previous versions of the device due to concerns about battery life and memory capacity.

In a rare move, Jobs responded to the Journal with an e-mail stating that "most of your information is incorrect." The CEO, who returned to full-time duties at Apple this fall after spending most of 2009 on medical leave for a still-undisclosed condition, apparently declined to elaborate on how the Journal's story had erred-perhaps because he was already back to working on a certain well-publicized piece of vaporware.

Microsoft has also been developing its own touchscreen-based device, rumors suggest, named Courier. Redmond's tablet/booklet PC will supposedly run on Windows 7 and let users both run applications and scrawl notes with a specialized pen. When contacted by eWEEK concerning the scuttlebutt, however, a Microsoft spokesperson offered only that "Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculative news stories."