A patent application today reminds us what is at the center of Apple's products today and Apple's dependency on being able to push the limits of its touch screen model.
Apple products of the past 15 years have always been products that lived and breathed via a combination of coherent experiences, and not just because of one particular standout features such as an special processor. You can love or hate Apple, but you can't deny that there is a pretty darn impressive and flawless pattern in Apple's strategy that simply makes business sense. If you look at Apple's most successful products, it is somewhat fascinating to see that they are really all a combination of products, all of which thrive in a tightly connected ecosystem.
Let me pick one of these items for this article: The touch screen. Remove touch screen capability from the iPad, iPod and iPhone and you remove an essential pillar of Apple's success - and the entire Apple iOS empire (which is more than 50% of Apple's revenue) crumbles like a house of cards. Apple reinvented touch screens with the iPhone and was conceivably the very first company that made touch screens work for all users. However, the current touch screens are, if we are picky, already the past and Apple will have to advance touch screens to keep its lead - at least until others (Samsung? Motorola? RIM?) figure out that beating Apple has nothing to do with copying Apple, but with good old innovation in their labs.
Even more fascinating is the realization that Apple's innovation comes in waves. You will get one stunning product every five years or so, which Apple then uses to innovate on - often at an amazingly slow pace. Remember how long it took to get Wi-Fi to iPods? The (multi-) touch screen is, in a larger sense, no exception. There is a new patent application that describes a "communicating stylus", which extends the iPad's display beyond the screen. You could write with that pen on a white board or a piece of paper and the same note would then appear on the iPad's screen. Apple said that you could even air-write a note and it would be recorded to the iPad. While this patent has little to do with actually touching the screen, it is an application that extends the usability of the screen and provides a new way of data input. The bottom line of this patent is, once again, that the interaction with a device will determine its value.
Some readers may remember the Livescribe pen, which sounds very similar to the pen described in this Apple patent. However, Apple's pen goes a bit further and is more flexible as it does not rely on a special recording material such as a paper-based notebook.
Data input has been, and still is a big deal in the industry - and is still considered the holy grail of consumer computing.
About 10 years ago, I interviewed Intel's Justin Rattner, today CTO and back then in charge of Intel's microprocessor development, why we would need a 1.5 GHz processor and what applications it would enable. As in so many cases, the highlighted application was speech input, which was rather flawed in 2001 (and still is flawed today) - a 98% recognition rate just isn't good enough. However, Rattner told me that Intel was working on ideas to combine audio recognition with visual recognition - just like HAL demonstrated in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey did. The pitch: Audio recognition could be much better if it was combined with the monitoring of lip movements. Needless to say, audio recognition has become better, but it's not good enough yet to replace touch screens as a data input method. Given its limitations, it probably will never be able to replace the touch screen - I bet you don't want to talk to your iPad while sitting in a Starbucks café because of privacy concerns alone.
Expect Apple to keep pushing the touch screen with apps that will slowly explore what is beyond the touch screen model. The Communicating Stylus could be a first sign of what Apple has in mind.