Are Apple Trying To Patent The Home Computer 45 Years Too Late?

In our recent piece marking the 10th anniversary of the Raspberry Pi, we praised their all-in-one Raspberry Pi 400 computer for having so far succeeded in attracting no competing products. It seems that assessment might be premature, because it emerges that Apple have filed a patent application for “A computer in an input device” that looks very much like the Pi 400. In fact we’d go further than that, it looks very much like any of a number of classic home computers from back in the day, to the extent that we’re left wondering what exactly Apple think is novel enough to patent.

A Raspberry Pi 400 all-in-one keyboard console computer
Looks pretty similar to us.

Reading the patent it appears to be a transparent catch-all for all-in-one computers, with the possible exception of “A singular input/output port“, meaning that the only port on the device would be a single USB-C port that could take power, communicate with peripherals, and drive the display. Either way, this seems an extremely weak claim of novelty, if only because we think that a few of the more recent Android phones with keyboards might constitute prior art.

We’re sure that Apple’s lawyers will have their arguments at the ready, but we can’t help wondering whether they’ve fallen for the old joke about Apple fanboys claiming the company invented something when in fact they’ve finally adopted it years after the competition.

Thinking back to the glory days of 8-bit computers for a moment, we’re curious which was the first to sport a form factor little larger than its keyboard. Apple’s own Apple ][ wouldn’t count because the bulk of the machine is behind the keyboard, but for example machines such as Commodore’s VIC-20 or Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum could be said to be all-in-one keyboard computers. Can anyone provide an all-in-one model that predates those two?

You can read our Raspberry Pi 400 review if the all-in-one interests you.

Via Extreme Tech.


64 thoughts on “Are Apple Trying To Patent The Home Computer 45 Years Too Late?

      1. Have we already forgotten the Apple vs. Samsung lawsuit which was fought over the roundness of the corners on Apple products? Apple eventually lost in court but it took an awful lot of time and money to get there. There’s no reason they won’t do it all over again with this.

        1. Apple vs Samsung was about a Design Patent, in the UK it would be called a registered design. Coke have one on their glass bottles. It doesn’t stop anyone else making bottles, they just can’t look like coke bottles. The court decided that Apple’s design wasn’t distinct enough.

          This, on the surface, looks similar to a lot of older PCs, but patent language can be very specific. This looks to me like it has to be a wedge shape made of metal or composite, have a single port (USB C apparently), be foldable in half (either front to back, or side to side), and have both a keyboard and a track pad built in.

          Wether or not the application holds up is a different matter, but on the face of things it looks to be sufficiently distinct to stand a chance.

    1. Wow… I made this technology years ago. MacBook with a broken lcd… took off the top half, plugged in a monitor.. bootcamp… been doing this for years. Took a chromebook with broken lcd, removed screen, it now runs digital signage software.

    1. Summer of 1977.

      Long before the ZX-80 or the VIC. Commodore’s competitor was the PET, which was an all-in-one.

      The SOL-20 is touted as the first computer with an integrated keyboard, but it’s form factor is more like the Apple ][.

      there were other various single board computers about (kim, elf, others) but they were pretty much a board with a 20 key keypad running a system monitor vi LED displays and no OS or built in BASIC.

      1. I think the distinction here is a comouter that isn’t bigger than the keyboard.

        A SOL, or the Sphere, beat the Apple to the all in one category, but all were bigger than the keyboard. The original TRS-80 wasn’t much bigger than the keyboard.

        Technology was the limiting factor. A board full of TTL, like the OSI Superboard, couldn’t be as small as the keyboard. The VIC-20 couod be, though kind of bulky.

        Now it’s easy, everything is small, even drives can fit in.

        But that doesn’t make it patentable.

        1. Spectrum 48k, definitely not larger than the keyboard. Not including the 128k just because of the included tape drive on the side or 3″ (yes just 3″) single sided floppy.

    1. Or the HP-75, released 2 years earlier. Or the even earlier Radio Shack Pocket Computer 1 (PC-1), whic was a re-branded Sharp product whose model number I’ve forgotten.

  1. I’m no expert on patent law, but looking through the entire application there is more to it than a TRS-80 clone.

    -It’s built completely out of aluminum, with possibly a top plate of ceramic?
    -It has a capacitive touch sensor on it.
    -It can fold in half (for transport maybe?)
    -The USB-C can be held in with screws (VGA vibes)
    -It has some sort of inductive charge pad
    -They claim parts can easily be swapped by plugging and unplugging
    I’m not saying that’s unique enough to justify a patent but there’s actually quite a bit in the application that they’re at least trying to swing as new.

  2. Not a lawyer… but have a close look at the claims on the patent:

    — quote —
    1. A computing device, comprising: an enclosure at least partially defining an internal volume and an external surface; a keyboard positioned at the external surface; a processing unit disposed within the internal volume; a memory communicatively coupled to the processing unit, the memory disposed within the internal volume; a singular input/output port positioned at an orifice defined by the enclosure and communicatively coupled to the processing unit and the memory, the singular input/output port configured to: receive signals and power; and output signals from the processing unit.

    2. The computing device of claim 1, wherein the enclosure comprises a metal or a composite material.

    3. The computing device of claim 1, further comprising a track pad communicatively coupled to the processing unit.

    4. The computing device of claim 1, wherein the keyboard comprises a plurality of key mechanisms, each key mechanism comprising a key cap, a support structure, and a biasing component.

    5. The computing device of claim 1, wherein the keyboard further comprises a capacitive touch sensor.

    6. The computing device of claim 1, further comprising a power supply disposed within the internal volume.

    7. The computing device of claim 1, wherein the singular input/output port comprises a USB type-C port.

    8. The computing device of claim 1, wherein the enclosure defines a vent in fluid communication with an ambient environment and the internal volume.

    9. The computing device of claim 1, wherein the enclosure comprises a first side wall, a second side wall, a rear-facing wall positioned between the first side wall and the second side wall, and a base.

    10. The computing device of claim 9, the enclosure further comprising a hinge foldable about an axis parallel to the rear-facing wall.

    11. The computing device of claim 9, the enclosure further comprising a hinge foldable about an axis perpendicular to the rear-facing wall.

    12. The computing device of claim 9, wherein a cross-sectional shape of the enclosure is triangular.

    13. A computing device, comprising: an enclosure defining an internal volume, a first vent, a second vent; a keyboard positioned on the enclosure; a processing unit disposed within the internal volume; a memory communicatively coupled to the processing unit, the memory disposed within the internal volume; and an air-moving apparatus disposed within the internal volume to move air along an airflow pathway from an ambient environment into the internal volume through the first vent and from the internal volume into the ambient environment through the second vent.

    14. The computing device of claim 13, wherein the enclosure comprises a metal or a composite material.

    15. The computing device of claim 13, wherein the air-moving apparatus comprises a bladed fan.

    16. The computing device of claim 13, wherein the processing unit is positioned in the airflow pathway.

    17. A computing device, comprising: an enclosure defining an internal volume and an external surface, the enclosure comprising a base comprising a thermally conductive material; a keyboard positioned at the external surface; a processing unit disposed within the internal volume and in thermal communication with the base; and a memory communicatively coupled to the processing unit, the memory disposed within the internal volume.

    18. The computing device of claim 17, wherein the enclosure comprises aluminum[sic].

    19. The computing device of claim 17, further comprising an inductive charging coil disposed within the internal volume.

    20. The computing device of claim 17, wherein the base comprises a metal or a metal alloy.
    — end quote —

    So let’s condense that:

    (1) describes most “keyboard integrated” PCs barring the concept of a “singular I/O port” which provides power; most home PCs of the late 70s/early 80s had at minimum: dedicated power, dedicated video (RF, Composite, SCART, …) and connections for a drive (disk, tape).
    (2) they talk about the case being metal
    (6) might hint at an internal battery (maybe to power a portable USB-C monitor… but then why not use a laptop?)
    (7) mentions the implementation of the I/O port (USB C), but later on Thunderbolt and Lightning get a mention
    (13-16) waffle on about the cooling subsystem (active forced-air cooling using a fan)
    (17-20) waffle on about the case… aluminium

    My Timex-Sinclair 2068 would not qualify because it has multiple I/O ports (composite video & RF, I/O expansion, ear/mic for tape deck, power, ROM cartridge, joysticks) and is housed in a plastic case. Commodore 64 fails for the same reasons.

    RPi400 looks close enough, but it too, is plastic, has multiple USB ports and a GPIO expansion port, and HDMI video output.

    A PocketBeagle might infringe if you put it in an aluminium keyboard case and use a USB-micro-B to micro-C pigtail to expose its usb0 interface.

    However, I ask this… this device is clearly not useful, without some sort of dock to connect to. Maybe it plugs into a USB-C monitor that breaks out all the ports and provides power? How’s this better than having the CPU in the monitor and having a dumb wired keyboard? The single-port MacBook Air was at least useful stand-alone.

    Maybe if it has Bluetooth on-board (a high probability given contemporary Apple computing devices), you could pair it with a Bluetooth headset and rely on the screen-reader to use it. A niche use case unless you’re actually blind.

    This is a “because we can” patent, not the design of a useful product. The form-factor will greatly constrain the capabilities of any CPU inside and likely not offer much in the way of compelling advantages over the RPi400 pictured above.

    1. Kind of sounds like a macbook air with a single USB-C port, minus the display, and cutting off the chassis below the keyboard where the trackpad & battery are.

      Of course if it ever comes to light it will cost more than the equivalent device which includes screen battery & touchpad, because novelty :)

    2. The additional claims are for devices that are variations on the device described by claim 1. So a device in a plastic case is still covered by claim 1. The other more-specific claims are just there in case a court tosses out claim 1 as being overly broad,

    3. Wouldn’t most modern USB keyboards be prior art for the first claim? They contain a processing unit with memory inside the keyboard volume (ie. some kind of microcontroller that implements the keyboard’s firmware), a keyboard on the external surface, a single USB port which offers both a communication port and means of power supply?

    4. My dell working laptop has a usb-c that can do everything. Stripping it of other ports do not create magically a new product and is not a “novelty” and for sure enough, not an invention…

      What we see here is not a creative patent, but a creative way of patenting in order to cash on Apple invention bonus.
      Yes those incentives tends to create stupid patents instead of real innovation. But managers are happy, they can boast their patents goals acheived, their top manager will never read them.

      Now bring this to Apple top management during an press call, just to embarass them in front of the world, they will apreciate…

  3. I Am Not A Lawyer, but the claims all taken together seem awfully specific and unlikely to cause a problem except for a direct knock-off.

    Does someone need to violate all of the claims to be sued by Apple, or does each claim stand on its own? It sure looks like this is the case, as many of the claims #include a previous base-claim. For example claims 18-20 build on claim 17 which seems specific to coupling things to the chassis like wireless power or heatsinks, while claims 10-12 build on claim 9 (inheriting from claim 1) and are all related to the shape of the chassis.

    1. To violate the patent you’d have to violate all claims in the patent. That also means you get around the patent by working around one of the claims. By working around, that doesn’t mean you use a like substitute (e.g, swap a material for another or a nail for a screw). But when the claims are so broad, it makes very difficult to work around them.

      1. This isn’t correct. Generally patents are written with independent and dependent claims. In most cases (and in this one too), claim 1 is independent, and in this case claims 2-12 are all dependent on claim 1. Get around claim 1 and you’ve gotten around claims 1-12. You can’t avoid infringing by avoiding any one of the claims, you need to avoid infringing upon claim 1, quite literally in this case. Avoiding claim 2 but infringing upon claim 1 still means you infringe upon the whole patent.

        1. What if independent claim 1 is covered by prior art? Does it invalidate the dependent claims as well? The reason I ask is that claim 1 seems so broad to me that many existing wired keyboards would be prior art as they have processing units with memory on the inside, a keyboard on the outside, and use a single cable (ie. USB) for I/O and power.

  4. Even Olivetti’s” Programma 101 from 1964, could be under the “A computer in an input device” definition. Not to mention the hundreds of models,
    a decade later, during the ’70s. From the famous from TI, HP, to the less known, from UK, Italy, Germany etc.
    It was not a sudden innovation disruption, but a small step by small step evolution.

  5. Let us not forget the computers from Sinclair Research. Sinclair introduced the ZX80 in 1980, the ZX81 in 1981, and the ZX Spectrum in 1982. Each was progressively smaller with the ZX Spectrum barely larger than the built in keyboard at 233x144x30mm (9.2×5.7×1.2″). It had an RCA jack to hook to a TV and a barrel connector for power an expansion edge connector and 2 audio jacks. So a minimum of two connections to use it. The ZX Spectrum was also much smaller that its contemporaries the VIC-20 (1980) and the Commodore 64 (1982); both of which were keyboards with computer built in.

  6. Apparently it’s impossible to get a patent on any automobile related item because every four wheeled vehicle counts as prior art, at least that’s the reasoning on display here.

    1. I think you’re right in your assessment, but it it works, it’ll be insane. Let’s all patent everything that can fit inside of something else. A hamster wheel in a microwave? Patented!

  7. Considering they are a sue happy company which stole the magnetic locking plug from another patent and fiercely defended it. I’m going to ask that Apple be more closely watched than other patent applicants. They want broad patents for broad lawsuits and anti competitive actions.

  8. Ok, so the next MacThing desktop version will be just a keyboard and a display… nothing original here, but patented anyway just in case competitors try to do the exact same thing.
    Just add a decent amount of USB ports and you can’t be sued.

    1. 1. A vehicle with at least 1 but less than 28 wheels,
      2. having a chassis made from either a monocoque or body on frame design
      3. Being fabricated from steel, aluminum, titanium, copper, brass,tin, polymer or graphite composite or a combination of these.
      4. Said vehicle having an internal means of propulsion which may be a fuel powered prime mover or an electric propulsion system consisting of an energy storage device such as a battery or capacitor
      5. Said vehicle may have one or more gearboxes that selectively or continuously direct power to the wheel.
      6. Said gearboxes may provide user selectable gear ratios.

      So yea, i guess you can try to patent a car the same way. But its just as stupid.

  9. There should be no way Apple should get this patent due to how the majority of micro or home computers were made in the 1980’s as a single unit with built in keyboard that connected to a display via a cable with a pair of RCA plugs for mono audio and composite video. Most of them had various ports for input devices, storage, printers, and expansion hardware. Do a google image search for PC in a keyboard. There have been hundreds of models from quite a large number of manufacturers. Some call them “Zero Footprint PC”.

  10. I can’t remember the exact wording, but there is something in the patent law of most countries about the “innovative step” needing to be “non-obvious to someone skilled in the field.” This one from Apple would seem to fail this step.Of course, Apple can afford to appeal longer than any “normal” applicant.

    As mentioned above, there’s also the “design patent,” which is more like a trademark than a patent, which is how Apple defended their “rounded corners” design… Again though, this “computer in a keyboard” would seem to fail due to the huge amount of prior art.

    But I’m not a lawyer, all I can do is continue to boycott their overpriced products to ensure that I am not funding this kind of nonsense.

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