Apple tipped for expansion into mobile market

Apple Computer has applied to register the trademark Mobile Me in the UK, giving the most concrete sign yet that the company is planning a launch into the mobile phone sector.

The California-based company has long been tipped to make a move into mobiles, and its application to the UK Patent Office, earlier this month, suggests plans are finally underway.

Apple declines to comment on the nature of the Mobile Me trademark, although it has been filed in four categories, spanning a wide range of business areas, from computers to telecommunications and entertainment.

It has also been seeking to trademark the name iPhone since 2002, having won an appeal last autumn against an earlier rejection of the marque by the European Union’s Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market. The application is still pending. Type the address into a Web browser, however, and up pops Apple’s homepage.

The company has already dipped its toe into the mobile world through the tie-up with Motorola, providing the mobile manufacturer’s Rokr phone with its iTunes software (DW 15 September 2005). Although Motorola has claimed that further collaborations between the two companies are on the cards (DW 3 November 2005), speculation is now rife that Apple will have a fully-fledged go at the market itself, with the launch of a phone unit and, possibly, its own network, leased from a service provider – as Virgin Mobile does.

‘They’ve got to do it,’ says Mark Delaney, director at product strategy consultancy Plan. ‘It’s all going to converge around the phone – a camera, music and even potentially your wallet can be in a phone. I wouldn’t expect anything radical in terms of design – Apple’s usual restrained, refined design language – but I think they will improve the interface, offering a seamless communication with software already on Mac computers.’

But Miles Hawley (pictured above), head of industrial design at PDD, believes the sector is too saturated for Apple. ‘I’d be surprised if they decided to enter that market. Perhaps it could be an iPod with connectivity, rather than a full phone, allowing wi-fi downloads from iTunes, where Apple already generates revenue,’ he says.

A move by Apple into mobile handsets would follow the considerable success of the iPod. According to the company’s Q1 2006 figures released last week, sales of the iPod jumped by 140 per cent year-on-year to $2.9bn (£1.6bn), on sales of 14 million units. This represents more than half of Apple’s total revenues of $5.8bn (£3.2bn). By contrast, desktop and laptop computers contributed just $0.9bn (£0.5bn) and $0.8bn (£0.45bn) in revenues respectively.

But the iPod’s dominance of portable music sales is now being threatened by the latest mobile handsets. These are kitted out with high-capacity hard drives, able to hold large volumes of music files. Sony Ericsson’s Walkman range has already proven popular, with three million units shipped since its launch last August, the company announced last week.

‘The iPod has a certain cachet, but that won’t last forever. I think they’ve got to do it this year. Apple’s got the power now; it’s probably the only company that could launch a new mobile service from scratch,’ says Delaney.

The successful launch of a mobile product, with all of Apple’s design elegance, could secure the company’s entertainment-based future, although there was no word on the subject in Apple chief executive Steve Jobs’ keynote at the Macworld conference earlier this month

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