A couple of Apple's recent patent applications have come to light that oddly open the door to the notion that they may be toying with a hybrid desktop-tablet system. It began in earnest late last summer with the introduction of Apple's Multi-Touch iMac patent and now a secondary patent puts this possibility back into play. The Post-PC era may have started with a simplistic tablet called the iPad but hybrid systems may be the next wave in Apple's revolution.
The First Patent
Our report about future hybrid systems oddly begins with the clash between two recent Apple patents that described seemingly similar end-products but in the end begged for closer scrutiny. Such scrutiny opened the door to the fact that although they were close in nature, one patent actually emerged as a possible pivotal piece of a future hybrid desktop system. We'll quickly present the clash between these two patents and then move onto the core discussion about the likelihood of future hybrid systems.
There were two Apple patent applications that surfaced in April that dealt with holding a glass display (or protective glass cover) into place on a metal frame. The first patent application (20110075342) clearly identified the computer as being that of an iMac. To clarify, we present one of the graphics presented in the first patent below (FIG. 8) juxtaposed to a graphic from the second patent.
The central focus of the first patent was simply to explain Apple's use of magnets around the iMac's frame in concert with the use a bottom metal chin to keep the display or protective glass in place. This very method was confirmed in Step 5 of iFixit's teardown of a 27" iMac.
Apple's first patent in and of itself was simply confirming what the community generally already knew and so we didn't bother posting a report on that patent. But then a second patent came to light shortly afterwards that provided new twists and contradictory insights into affixing a display to the frame of a computing device which raised an eyebrow.
The Second Patent
Apple's second patent in question was the subject of an April report titled "Apple Patent Reveals a New Baffling iPad Design." Our initial report focused on the most obvious feature presented in the patent which was the addition of a baffle to what appeared to be that of a possible future iPad. But after our report was posted, we returned to review the patent once again because of several other anomalies that we didn't touch on in our report.
This second patent differed from the first in several meaningful ways. The first distinction was that it refused to identify what specific end-user product it was for and instead simply pointed to "computers" and "handheld devices" in general. The first patent, on the other hand, clearly identified itself as being related to Apple's iMac.
A second distinction from the first patent was that the newly proposed device design didn't include a description or illustration of a built-in pedestal of any kind whatsoever. This is why our initial report described the unit as being that of a possible future iPad.
A third distinction from the first patent was that it described protective glass restraint structures and never once described them as being magnetic in nature as was the case with the iMac related patent.
For a true iMac desktop the use of magnets to keep the display (or protective glass) in place may suffice because the unit is, for the most part, stationary. But what if the unit is to be part of a hybrid desktop where the display would be detachable for use as a tablet? Magnets may not suffice under such usage and therefore Apple has chosen to simply identify their method in the second patent as simply one of utilizing glass restraints, generically.
At the end of the day, the iMac uses magnets and according to iFixit, the iPad uses "tons of glue" to secure the display (or protective glass) in place. So once again, why is Apple describing yet a third method of securing the protective glass with generically described protective restraints?
The final off-beat piece of the puzzle associated with this unidentified system that is generically described in the patent as being associated with a "computer" or "handheld devices," is that it carries one similar trait of the iMac in that it includes a metallic chin located at the bottom of the frame (see patent point #110 below). So what is the second patent actually trying to describe and why would it be associated with both a computer and a handheld device?
If the design isn't that of a classic iPad or classic iMac, then what could it be?
Is Apple Considering a Hybrid Desktop?
In the bigger picture, could Apple's second patent be associated with a proposed hybrid desktop-tablet system? Apple first introduced a full-pledged iMac Touch system back in August 2010. The naysayers at that time thought that the iMac would be too large for a detachable tablet. But that's only true if you're stuck with the notion that a hybrid desktop would have to mirror today's current 21.5" or 27" sized iMacs.
Apple's second patent may have provided us with a clue that the contemplated iPad-like device could in fact be a part of a future hybrid desktop system which would go a long way in explaining why Apple chose to place the mysterious device into two differing camps: Computer and Handheld. The incorporation of a baffle on the device's back-end would suggest that this particular design may be able to accommodate a more powerful architecture than that of a traditional iPad – which we'll touch on a bit later.
The device's incorporation of a chin structure would also strongly suggest that the end product could take on more of an iMac-like appearance than that of traditional iPad as first thought. It's a design concept that opens the door to a possible surprise for OS X Lion, or at the very least, a future upgrade to that OS which could take on more iOS functionality over time. An alternative to this scenario is presented further below.
Apple has been toying with a number of scenarios supporting a hybrid desktop for years. There was the magnetic docking system which clearly connects the dots between an iMac-like docking structure and a magnet-backed tablet design. In fact Apple was recently granted a patent for that very design.
Then there was a modern iMac-shell-like dock which was first assumed as being associated with a notebook but could very likely fit a scenario of being a docking station for a sophisticated future tablet. When we add those Apple scenarios to the iMac Touch patent of 2010, we clearly see that that Apple has been and currently is attempting to define some kind of new desktop-like device that would usher in the Post PC era with a bang – well beyond the tablet form factor.
Hybrid Systems are Coming to Market
A recent rumor surfaced which caused a lot of angst and anger. It basically stated that Apple would transition away from Intel's x86 to that of ARM for a 2013 MacBook. With Apple really gaining steam in the enterprise market, I highly doubt that Apple would make such a draconian move. However, that doesn't mean that the entire idea is dead in the water. In fact, it doesn't have to be an either/or scenario at all. Apple could very easily be creating a hybrid system that would accommodate both x86 and ARM processors.
Does that scenario sound a little too farfetched for you? Well consider this: A recent EETimes article reveals the stunning news that ARM Holdings is in serious talks with AMD. The report specifically states that "One possibility is that AMD could amend its Fusion architecture to include both x86 and ARM CPU cores plus graphics cores in a heterogeneous multiprocessor." Without a doubt, such a hybrid architecture would certainly be a game changer. It may even explain to some degree why AMD held secret talks with Apple last year.
The hybrid architecture scenario would also fit perfectly with HP's plans to have their upcoming WebOS running inside a new browser on future Windows hardware by 2012. The mysterious unnamed browser concept was revealed by HP's CEO Leo Apotheker during a recent interview.
So the concept of creating Post-PC hybrid computer systems is definitely on the minds of many in the industry which could give way to various next generation hardware combinations such as desktop-tablets, notebook-tablets and beyond.
The Crazy One's Think Different
A few years back when the PC industry began pushing notebooks into the massive 18" to 20" display arena, Apple thought differently once again and went in the opposite direction by debuting their breakthrough design known as the MacBook Air – which today is available in both 11and 13 inch models. In that same vein we could easily envision Apple creating a new hybrid iMac touch utilizing a much smaller display.
If you think about it, a modest 12-17 inch iMac-like desktop would be light enough to carry around and work with as a tablet for general surfing, email and games while being able to double as a full pledge multi-touch desktop once mated to an iMac-like docking station for office related apps. The appearance of the unit looking distinctively like an iMac as opposed to an iPad would be making a distinctive statement. It would instantly signify that such a unit is a dual OS system (like OS X Lion and iOS).
Such a hybrid system could also serve a need to run more sophisticated OS X based apps supporting multi-touch. Microsoft's Windows 7 and 8 are pushing more and more business apps into the touch arena and Apple may want to allow developers of those PC apps to easily port them to OS X Lion or more specifically, to an iMac touch based desktop. Apple may want to establish a bridging system for that purpose alone. And keep in mind that multi-touch is going far beyond handhelds and into future table systems and beyond. So the concept of a hybrid architecture is far from fiction.
But at the end of the day there's only so far we could go with a theoretical hybrid system without falling off a cliff. While we don't have all of the pieces of Apple's puzzle just yet, there's certainly a growing body of evidence that supports such a possibility and why we felt it time to at least put it on our radar screen.
Ever since Steve Jobs uttered the phrase "Post PC era" at the All Digitals D8 event last summer, it has captured the imagination of the entire industry and especially the Mac Community. Apple could once again be preparing to push the industry forward with advanced hybrid systems of one sort or another and once again prove that thinking differently is simply what the Crazy One's in Cupertino do, every day of the year.
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