Affiliate Disclosure
If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Read our ethics policy.

Apple's reissued pen computer patent adds cellular connectivity, could hint at future mobile device

Pen computer with screen (5), touch strip (14), finger switches (19a, 19b, 20), IR tranceivers (22a, 22b), LED (23), dock contacts (21), and microphone (16). | Source: USPTO

Last updated

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday reissued Apple a patent for a mobile computer encased in a pen, adding cellular and GPS capabilities to the invention first filed for internationally in 1998.

Simply titled "Portable computers," the invention, originally assigned to British Telecommunications PLC, describes a multifunction device equipped with a pair of accelerometers to recognize handwritten input, a built-in display and an embedded touch strip for GUI navigation.

When Apple was transferred the U.S. patent rights in 2008, the invention was already assigned U.S. Patent No. 6,956,564. As of Tuesday, it carries the reissued designation of RE44,103 and broadens the patent language of the first filing while relating it to another property covering identical technology granted in 2011.

Most important of the additions is the possibility of cellular or wireless data transmission through an onboard radio. The patent adds 11 claims to the original 36, each applying the words "cellular telephone" to the previous assertions, while one embodiment includes GPS positioning technology.

Pen Add
Image of cell tower, GPS and device as added with reissued patent.

As noted in the patent language, the invention was meant as an alternative to the then-current palm top computers (PPCs) which often took on a clamshell form factor with an integrated keyboard. Apple's invention provides for a portable computer with the same functionality of PPCs, but in an ergonomic chassis that fits comfortably in the user's hand.

The patent does away with the need for a bulky keyboard as the device has various sensors disposed throughout its body to detect hand movements, such as tilt and acceleration, which is then output as alphanumeric or graphical data.

Pen Patent Side
Profile of pen computer.

From the patent summary:

According to the present invention there is provided a portable computer including movement detection means responsive to movement of the computer to produce an electrical output signal representative of such movement, processing means responsive to the output of said position detection means to determine detected movement data defining a user's intention, the processing means using said data to provide a mode response selected from a multiplicity of stored possible modes.

The built-in LCD screen is flanked by either pressure or touch sensitive multifunction buttons and a touch strip to navigate through written messages or other stored information. In another embodiment, the stylus body itself can be used to move through the on-screen data by tilting the unit away or toward the user. As is the case with the iPhone, the display orientation can be locked in either portrait or landscape mode.

Also incorporated into the numerous sensors already disposed throughout the pen body is a proximity sensor that can adjust font size based on how far away the device is from a user's eye line. This technique is further used to determine what hand the pen is in, thereby allowing on-screen text to be flipped accordingly.

Pen Patent Block
Block schematic.

Interestingly, the patent calls for an ARM processor, the same micro-architecture Apple uses in its A-series SoCs.

Finally, the device can support sound input/output components that can be used to process speech-to-text and text-to-speech.

Various embodiments include docking stations, infrared data transmission and mouse simulation through surface sensors. The device can support full PDA functionality, such as email correspondence and storage of a contacts list.

While the "portable computer" is 15 years old, many of its technologies are being employed in Apple's latest iOS products like the iPhone and iPad. Indeed, some of the proposed hardware and software solutions go beyond what is offered on the modern consumer market. Perhaps most intriguing is the broadening of the patent to include cellphones, possibly suggesting that handwriting recognition or some other facet of the invention may make its way to a future iOS device.

Apple's patents was first applied for in Great Britain in 1997 and credits Hilary Lyndsay Williams as its inventor.