Apple applies for patent on removable touchscreen laptop displays or: How long until we see an iPadBook Air?
Basically, there are two different ways that Apple works. Apple will either take a device market that has fallen into the doldrums, and inject it with hype and excitement (see: MP3 players, smartphones, tablets), or Apple will look at how other companies are succeeding and do something similar, but with the extra Apple "magic" (read: marketing). Yesterday, Apple applied for a patent for a removable touchscreen laptop that we don't really expect to become a device, but it does point towards an important question: How long until we see an iPadBook Air?
The patent filing shows a device that would be a laptop, not a mobile device, that has a removable touchscreen display. The display would connect to the laptop base through a 60GHz ultrawideband format (like WiGig perhaps). The display would also use induction charging through the laptop hinge to charge the display for wandering use.
To be clear, this patent is not for a device that mashes together an iPad and a Macbook. This patent is for a laptop, which has the guts of the computer in the keyboard section. But the touchscreen is detachable and can essentially use a remote connection to use the guts of the computer, which are still in the keyboard. So, this is a patent for technology, rather than an actual useful device, because we can't see any benefits that this configuration would have over something like a Windows 8 hybrid, or Android transformer tablet.
At the very least though, this patent proves that Apple is looking into various ways of evolving its product line.
Apple denies until it can't deny anymore
Checking back on Apple's comments, we'll find that Apple has said repeatedly that it deems touchscreen laptops to be unnecessary, because the "best way to deliver multitouch is through the trackpad." Of course, this is Apple's modus operandi: say that something is unnecessary so as not to impact sales of another device (in this case the iPad), and then do that "unnecessary" thing when Apple's market position demands it.
Android already has a handful of tablets that have laptop dock accessories. Canonical wants to make Ubuntu the same OS from phones all the way back to traditional PCs. And, Microsoft's entire strategy with Windows 8 is to blur the lines between tablets and laptops. The first generation of Windows 8 devices has shown that plan, but most fall into the first generation pitfall of being jack of all trades but master of none. Some may stake claim to the Microsoft Surface Pro as the best device showing Windows' future, but others point to devices like Lenovo's Yoga convertible.
Regardless of how the best way forward is for Windows, manufacturers are going to keep pushing until they find it. And, eventually it becomes a question of whether or not Apple's iPad and Macbook combo (starting at ~$1500) can hold enough market share to keep Apple happy in the face of more Android and Windows devices.
The future iPadBook (or iPad Maxi or iPad Air)
Android is already eating away at Apple's tablet market share, and there are rumors that Android will be making the leap from transforming tablets to full laptops in the near future. Windows can leverage its dominance in the traditional PC market to add to its "mobile" numbers with more and more hybrid convertible or transformer devices. Eventually, Apple is going to give in and mash together iOS and MacOS, and the first device to do it will most likely be a mashup of the iPad and MacBook Air. It's possible that Apple would go with the full convergence and also offer a dock for the iPhone that would turn it into a traditional Mac, much like Canonical's plans for Ubuntu, but more likely it will be a device to directly compete with Microsoft's fleet of hybrid devices.
The real bottleneck for Apple right now in implementing this would be in the software side. As far as hardware is concerned, it's relatively easy to swap out the MacBook Air display for a larger iPad. The trouble is that creating at least a bridge between iOS and MacOS is a huge task. Apple has been doing some small surface things to MacOS, like adding the Mac App Store, and adding LaunchPad, which are priming laptop users for life with an iPad, but there's a lot of work to make iOS apps run natively in MacOS or create a new app paradigm (like Windows 8). As far as marketing is concerned, it seems like the best opportunity would be in releasing an 11 inch iPadBook Air along with MacOS 11 which should be coming next year, but that probably isn't enough time for Apple to make it all work.
The question here isn't so much if this convergence will happen, but when. It won't be happening any time soon. The addition of the iPad mini to the roster will help Apple to deny the inevitable a little while longer. And, Windows 8 is still a transition OS for Microsoft, meaning the devices are stuck in a weird limbo where manufacturers don't have a concrete idea of how to best design. Eventually, Windows will be fully Metro Modern UI, and the real convergence between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 will become more clear. That may still be another year or two away though, meaning Apple won't be feeling the heat from that side.
On the other hand, Android looks to continue its march onto any and every device around, and as the Android 10-inch tablet app ecosystem continues to mature, there will be more and more Android devices that start to compete directly with traditional laptops. Android has been moving faster than Windows these days, so we could start seeing Android devices that can be legitimate competitors to the MacBook Air by as soon as next year. And, that will put some more pressure on Apple to do what it has always denied.