A just-published Apple patent application for hand-writing recognition on pen-based computers has re-ignited speculation the company will soon unveil a tablet device. But if that's Apple's plan, the company may be in a furious race with Microsoft, which is leaking and hinting at details of an innovative small tablet device, Courier, now in development.
Technically, the Apple patent application - filed in July but published this week by the US Trademark & Patent Office - is for "acquiring and organizing ink information in pen-aware computer systems". That's a type of device that Apple doesn't currently offer, though hand-writing recognition, dubbed Rosetta, was part of the Newton handheld device and operating system, released in 1993. And, according to Wikipedia, some of that code, renamed Inkwell, was introduced into Mac OS X, for use by peripherals graphics tablets.
One of the developers of Inkwell, Larry Yaeger, is named in the newest patent application along with Richard Fabrick II, and Giulia Pagallo.
One of the first sites to pick up on the filing was Seth Weintraub's daily Apple news site, 9to5Mac.com.
Earlier this month, Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer, declined to comment on the Courier device but made it clear that Microsoft not only hasn't given up on tablets, but thinks the pieces are in place for a breakthrough product.
"Today, several factors are coming together that will probably make the concept more resurgent or at least become more mainstream," he said. "It's a confluence of small, light devices with the hybrid touch and writing screen technology that will finally probably result in a tablet-type computer going mainstream."
One key question is what operating system Courier might be using: a slimmed down version of the recently released Windows 7, or an early version of Windows Mobile 7, expected next year, with dramatically improved touch support on Windows handhelds.
The Apple filing describes a tablet "input device" that "may be a thin layer of sensing circuitry present either beneath the visible screen/tablet surface…or as part of a thin, clear membrane (not shown) overlying the screen…that is sensitive to the position of the pen on its surface.
But the Inkwell heritage raises the question of just what kind of "tablet" Apple may have in mind. Most of the speculation for much of this past year has been around a portable device with a notebook-sized screen and, in keeping with the success of the iPhone and iPod touch, a multi-touch user interface.
Engadget's Tom Ricker uses the pen-oriented patent filing to mock Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who famously called the finger the "best pointing device in the world" compared to the stylus, which has been a staple for Windows Mobile devices for years.
But Apple's patent filing specifically mentions that "A suitable tablet…for use with the present invention includes the Wacom graphics tablets from Wacom Technology Company of Vancouver, Wash."
Wacom's products are advanced USB peripherals that plug into a Mac or Windows computers to enable pen or gesture input. The Bamboo products are pads only, using the host computer's screen; the Intuoas and Cintiq products incorporate their own displays as well. The Intuoas4, introduced in March, can capture subtle differences in pressure, for example.
Tablets have been about to "happen" for the last 20 years. Microsoft has tried at least twice, most recently in 2001, to promote them as the next big thing in personal computing, investing time and treasure in creating intuitive digital ink technology, to make using the screen as easy as using a piece of real paper. Yet today, tablets are relegated to small niches and vertical applications, such as healthcare.
But the success of the big-screened, Web-browser-equipped iPhone, and the explosion of the netbook, or shrunken notebook, market seems to be reviving interest in finding the Next Big Small Form Factor device.
Gizmodo in September released a Microsoft-created video that apparently shows a new, small tablet-like device from Microsoft, the Courier. The video, which seems more like an animation than a recorded live demonstration, shows a device that opens flat like a small book, with each "page" being a screen, each roughly 5x7 inches. The interface combines a pen and gestures to take notes and work with a variety of what seem to be PIM and Web applications.
"[T]he biggest question that popped up for me is whether the pen interface (digital ink) is the right choice for the job," writes Network World blogger, Mitchell Ashley. "Is the pen interface something that belongs in the Tablet PC era, but not in new touch interface devices?... Maybe the touch keyboard, like [that] used with the iPhone, is the way to go. I personally would rather type, even with a simulated digital keyboard, than write with a pen stylus"
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