Apple's latest patent steps into high-end-camera territory

A drawing from Apple's patent

Above: A drawing from Apple's patent

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Apple cofounder Steve Jobs wanted to reinvent photography. Today, his company took a potentially major step toward making smartphones into much better cameras, receiving a patent for interlocking bayonet mounts to hold interchangeable lenses.

The patent, uncovered by AppleInsider, notes that current methods of attaching a large lens to a device — it doesn’t specifically mention smartphones — could “detract from the aesthetic appeal.” Instead, the patent describes small bayonet mounts, which are constructed so that the lens can be attached or removed by rotating the lens. And, the patent says, “the attachment mechanisms may release from one another in a drop event.”

The new patent goes into Apple’s drawer with several others that fit with cameras. They include one, issued in January, that covers a back panel “with a different lens option” and another, also from January, that describes “magnetic add-on lenses.”

A high-end interchangeable lens is arguably the key feature separating smartphone photography from a dedicated quality camera, such as digital single-lens reflex cameras. Bayonet-mounted lenses could leap over other products intended to upgrade a smartphone’s capability to see clearly – Sony’s high-end, separate lenses that wirelessly talk to a smartphone, Olloclip’s lenses that slide onto an iPhone, and a wide assortment of other attempts.

“The fact that Apple is trying to get into this game [in addition to other products] shows that the smartphone is becoming the primary camera,” Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart told VentureBeat.

“There will always be people with dedicated cameras,” he predicted, although he noted that “imaging is a core use case for smartphones, and you’re seeing a lot of innovation” in the category.

Greengart pointed to the two lenses to handle depth perception in the HTC One M8. The Sony invention of wireless separate lenses, however, may well be an evolutionary deadend. Greengart said their setup and user experience was “somewhat kludgy, [because] you’re essentially carrying around a second camera.”

One assumes that dedicated cameras will continue to beat smartphones for lens quality even if Apple implements its new patent, and dedicated cameras will probably keep winning the arms race in pixel resolution, storage, and features. Plus, as Greengart noted, “Apple patents a lot of things that they don’t work into products.”

But, if and when high-end mountable interchangeable lenses become available for smartphones, only the highest-end cameras may offer enough differences to be worth the money.

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Apple designs and markets consumer electronics, computer software, and personal computers. The company's best-known hardware products include the Macintosh line of computers, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Apple software includes t... read more »

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