When Apple released the Magic Keyboard, it essentially gave iPad owners the ability to transform their tablet into a laptop. At least, from a hardware perspective.
It’s not an ideal solution, though. The accessory is heavy, it doesn’t let you use the iPad as a standalone tablet, and viewing angles are limited. Seemingly taking a page from Microsoft’s Surface Pro devices, Apple could one day release a more traditional detachable keyboard attachment with more tablet placement options, at least if a newly revealed patent moves forward.
In the patent (via Apple Insider), Apple describes a tablet accessory with a base portion and a “coupling mechanism,” which would sit alongside a keyboard that uses electromechanical keys. Apple describes several iterations of this detachable concept, each of which gives users the flexibility to place the iPad in various orientations.
There are some rather strange implementations here, including a few that will make people squirm and a few that seem rather intuitive. In one scenario, Apple describes a “coupling mechanism,” or a hinge, that overlaps the back panel of the tablet and has its own auxiliary display showing a custom message, battery levels, the date and times, etc. It reminds me of the panel on the Asus Zenbook 14X OLED Space Edition I recently reviewed.
Having the screen on the back of the tablet so you can view important information when the device is closed could be rather useful. I’m less thrilled about what happens when you flip the tablet around. In this setup, the hinge would overlap the tablet display, creating a large rectangular notch with a built-in interface where the tablet’s menu bar would reside. One version doesn’t even have its own “graphical interface,” and another uses the front notch as a stylus holder. When the pen is removed, a screen underneath could show editing tools.
Interestingly, the UI shown on the display of this tablet is unmistakably a desktop OS similar to macOS. Apple has repeatedly held its stance that the iPad will remain an iPad, meaning it will supposedly always be a mobile device that doesn’t share the same operating system as its laptops or desktops. This, however, suggests otherwise.
A more traditional hinged keyboard accessory looks similar to the Surface Pro, where the tablet snaps into a keyboard attachment on the bottom edge and closes like a book. In one concept, the hinge supports additional accessories, like a camera, projectors, or microphone. Again, Apple isn’t exactly known for modularity, so this seems like a long shot.
In any case, here is how Apple explains the detachable accessory, in typical jargony patent language:
“The accessory device may include a coupling mechanism for releasably coupling the base portion of the accessory device to a tablet computing device in multiple different installation modes. The coupling mechanism may include an auxiliary display for providing a graphical output along a surface of the coupling mechanism. Additionally or alternatively, the coupling mechanism may include a recess for receiving a stylus.”
As with all patents, we shouldn’t read too much into any of this, though it does reveal some of the unique ways Apple is considering evolving the tablet form factor after having launched the Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro and now iPad Air models. This patent was applied for in July 2020 and granted today. It’s possible, even probable, that these never escape the Cupertino spaceship, but they at least give us a glimmer of hope for a future where the iPad is a true Mac alternative.