How soon could Apple build an 'e-book' Ipod?

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Cupertino (CA) - The consumer electronics Web site Engadget has been right so often on so many counts recently, that when it shares whispers of rumors it's received, the rest of the press pick up on it quite quickly. And when the topic is iPod, the echo from the press sounds like THX amplification.  Last Friday, Engadget reported that it had learned from an unnamed publisher that certain of its staff had been ordered to ship electronic copies of all its manuscripts to Apple.

Engadget's report was later cited by many press sources, including Daily Variety, as an indication that Apple was not only building an iPod with an e-book reader, or e-reader, but may be preparing to announce such a device as soon as this September.

There may be some factors that have yet to be considered before the Engadget story leads to such a conclusion. First of all, is Apple ready for such a device technologically? At present, Sony leads the way in terms of legibility, with a portable, inexpensive, low-power, very high resolution display based on E Ink technology. Any device willing to compete with Sony's e-book reader will need to be at least as legible.

The Engadget story includes a mock-up picture of a design based on one filed by Apple in a January 2005 patent application entitled, "Mode-based graphical user interfaces for touch sensitive input devices." There, an iPod-like wheel control superimposes itself onto a full-size display, whose size is comparable with Sony's EPD. The application was resubmitted last February, and the accompanying drawings updated then. But as best as we can determine from a search of the US patent database, a patent has yet to be granted from this application. Apple could conceivably have developed a working prototype in the intervening period since that application was filed; but if it's ready to go into production, there's a good chance the company that won the contract to produce the display would have triumphantly announced the victory already.

Next, there's the question of those manuscripts. The print publishing world typically runs a lot more slowly than the electronic publishing field. As a result, for a manufacturer like Sony to acquire the rights to produce e-reader versions of even less-than-popular titles, has taken years, not months, and the negotiating process has been something less than clandestine. If Apple is negotiating seriously with publishers the size of Random House or Simon & Schuster, chances are, we'd have heard about that as well.

The existence of the patent application does give a clear and irrefutable indication that Apple is exploring the development of a tablet-size portable device with a much larger screen - drawings supplied with the application suggest about twice the breadth of an ordinary human hand, which would be much larger than the current iPod form factor. (Technical difficulties with the patent office database, which is currently being reworked, prevented us from providing sample images.) However, the application clearly described the application of such a system as a portable media player with potential capabilities not only for displaying movies, but letting users edit them as well. Along the way, it describes a method for allowing the user to turn the pages of an electronic book by making an arc-shaped motion with her finger.

Granted, this will be another magnificent device from Apple, if and when it becomes available. But the late date of the patent application re-filing, coupled with the lack of legal activity from print publishers who have historically not been keen on the whole electronic retransmission idea in the first place, suggests that September may be too soon a date for this to be the next-generation iPod to which analysts have referred, and which many expect to see.