This week, AppleInsider published details of an new Apple patent just published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The application, entitled “Back Panel for a Portable Electronic Device with Different Camera Lens Options,” includes exploded-view illustrations of an iPhone-like device. You can read a summary of the patent here. The page also contains a link to the entire application.
It’s an interesting concept. Click past the jump for more on the patent and to find out what I think about it.
The patent filing talks about the digital image capturing devices — the camera — in compact electronic devices such as the iPhone. As they are now, the camera is part of a single sub-assembly so that “all components requiring high precision optical alignment are pre-assembled,” permitting economies of scale in the manufacturing process.
As the quality of these compact cameras improve, the filing states that users are desiring more of the features found in high-end DSLRs, such as lens and filter mounts for replaceable lenses and optics.
“It would be desireable to provide a structure for a compact device that allows the end user to reconfigure the optical arrangement of the device….”
In theory, I think this is a great idea and one which some third-party iPhone case makers are currently addressing. However, the patent doesn’t describe the addition of a mini-C-mount to the iPhone. It’s more of a scorched earth approach and describes replacing the entire back panel of the device. That to me is where this concept falls apart and why I think it will never reach production in its current state.
As described in the patent, this method allows the user to open up the iPhone, exposing the camera unit as well as the electronic guts of the iPhone. This contradicts what Apple has been doing across its product line for the past couple of years — that is restricting user access to the inside of the device. All new Apple product designs have no user serviceable or replaceable parts. Cases now have proprietary screws. Good luck finding a Torx wrench or screwdriver which will get you into your iPhone, iPad or MacBook Air. Apple is moving towards a very closed, sandbox architecture in both its hardware and software. I can’t see why after working so hard to close off user access Apple would suddenly change that on the iPhone for the sake of a relatively small number of power users.
I also think that changing the entire back panel is a clunky, much less elegant solution than simply incorporating some sort of lens mount or turret system on a future iPhone case. One of the things Apple is known for is its elegant solutions.
Realistically, this is probably an instance of Apple patenting an idea to protect it and similar intellectual property in the future. There are a ton of patents out there that never go anywhere.
As the quality of the camera sensor increases, there is a need for the rest of the camera to improve as well. Optics is one area that can and should be improved as the iPhone evolves.
For improved optics now, there are several great third-party options available today, including the very popular Olloclip 3-in-1 Lens for iPhone, the newest version of the Diff case with C-mount lens adapters, and the high-end iPro Lens System from Schneider Optics.
I’m glad that Apple is looking forward regarding the development of the iPhone’s camera. I don’t think that this patent, though, is something to get excited about just yet, if ever.
What are your thoughts on this new patent from Apple? Are you excited about swappable back panels or think this is a clunky solution for better optics? Let us know what you think in the comments below.