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Apple suspect in Internet device market study

Apple Computer is one of few high-tech companies which may have been responsible for a recent market survey that asked participants to rate their preference of form factor designs for a next-generation Internet handheld device.

The study, conducted earlier this spring by a private firm, placed approximately ten mock portable devices of different overall size, shape, screen size and weight, in front of participants and asked that they rate those devices based on which offered the most appealing structural design.

According to one participant, the mock devices consisted mainly of hollow casing enclosures. Behind the mock display area on each device was a printed image of a Yahoo! website displayed in Apple's Safari web browser.

After having the opportunity to handle the devices, the participant was asked in a survey to indicate which features and form factors were most desirable. A broad range of feature possibilities were presented, including RSS access, full Internet access versus partial Internet access, Internet access via hot spots versus Internet anywhere, cell phone capabilities, as well as MP3, movie and television content access.

The survey also asked whether the participant preferred the device be optimized for automobile integration rather than the Internet access. One example described a car device with a built in FM transmitter and GPS capabilities. Another asked if the participant would prefer subscribing in advance to an associated service agreement for $50 per month in order to save $200 off the cost of the device or pay two years in advance to save $400. Pricing preferences for the various devices were listed between $200 - $900.

While there is little concrete evidence to suggest Apple was responsible for commissioning the survey, information to rule out the Cupertino, Calif.-based iPod maker is also lacking.

Interestingly, in the months following the survey, the participant matched two of the devices from the study to illustrations that appeared in a September Apple patent filing entitled, "Hand held electronic device with multiple touch sensing devices."

The illustrations, figures 1E and 1F (displayed below), depict iPod-like devices with slightly larger display areas and a series of input buttons. One of the devices appears to sport a tiny trackpad, flanked by two sets of control keys.

Apple patent filing

In the abstract to the patent filing, Apple said the "the touch sensing devices may for example be selected from touch panels, touch screens or touch sensitive housings." Meanwhile, in specific references to the figures mentioned above, the company said figure 1E includes "a camera" and figure 1F "a GPS module."

"The camera 10E typically includes a display 12 such as a graphic display and input devices 14 such as buttons," the description continues. "The GPS module 10F typically includes a display 12 such as graphic display and input devices 14 such as buttons, and in some cases a navigation pad."

While Apple has yet to broaden its consumer electronics scope beyond the iPod digital music player, the company last month revealed plans to begin selling a $299 set-top-box dubbed iTV during the first calendar quarter of 2007. Shortly thereafter, it's expected to introduce an iPod cell phone.

It's unclear how far Apple will immediately extend its foray into the consumer electronics market. However, Intel officials in a series of recent interviews have implied that the chipmaker is working closely with Apple on a series of "next-generation technologies."