iMac Touch: The Boat That Sony and HP Missed

A new Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) patent filing describing a possibly future iMac Touch is making the rounds today. We still have to see whether this is a product that makes it into production, and if it does, its much more significant feature may be iOS integration. This is one more example how Apple picks up an idea from the past and attempts to make it relevant for today's users. If you are picky, you could claim that the basic idea of the iMac Touch was invented back in 2000. Will Apple get it right this time?

Patently, Apple calls it the Mother Lode. Apple seems to be ready to move the touchscreen to desktop products as well as notebooks. Reading through the patent is stunning, and it shows how a next-generation iMac could look. But on a closer examination, it becomes clear that this iMac Touch has been around for a while. However, it did not succeed, and you could claim that Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) invented this concept, but they failed to establish it.

The Sony Slimtop Pen Tablet computer was shown at Computex 2000 for the first time and made it into production in early 2001. The device resembled the look of a regular minitower computer case with a 17" LCD screen that could be used as a touchscreen device as well as a tablet when you pushed the screen back and flat on your desk. It was praised by the media, it had plenty of power (a 1 GHz Pentium III processor), up to 60 GB storage, 128 MB of memory (a lot for its time) ... but it was pricey: Sony wanted $2500 for the basic model and $3000 for the flagship.

The problem was that people did not see the benefit of pen computing at the time -- remember, this was the time when tablets and tablet PCs failed as well. Using the Slimtop was clumsy, and it appeared to be more like a toy than a device that had a true advantage over the regular PC. The computer quietly disappeared, and most of us do not remember it. HP was next in line with its Touchsmart PCs. They were praised as well, much more media-focused, but they could not convince many of us that a touchscreen was beneficial in a desktop PC.

Apple has a chance to take another shot. If it has learned the lessons from the past, then we know that it cannot be pricey and it needs to be easy to use. It appears that touchscreens are in fact coming down in price, and Apple has the advantage that its user base is already touchscreen educated, so it may have a good chance to transition to a touchscreen iMac.

Even more significant is the integration of iOS: If Apple can transition the Mac line to iOS, then Apple would immediately solve the application problem on traditional Macs, and it could connect all devices in its ecosystem through a cloud structure. Applications that are downloaded once could be available through the cloud on your iPhone, iPad, iMac and iTV. Data sharing would be much easier today as well.

There are patents that Apple simply ignores and they rarely materialize. Such as the famous iPhone remote control (which may, however, come to market with a new iTV that runs on iOS). But this iMac Touch seems like a no brainer and like a natural evolution for the iMac. June 2011?

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