Will iPhone 5 boast removeable lenses? No, but it might fix Apple Maps

A recent Apple [AAPL] patent filing for replaceable lenses on the iPhone shows the company continues to focus on photography as part of its smartphone offering. This suggests the iPhone 5 will quickly become the most used camera on social services, including Facebook, Flickr and Twitter -- and hints on future developments for Apple Maps.

[ABOVE: Annie Leibowitz got a lot of attention when she praised the iPhone last year.]

Smile for the camera

iOS devices currently account for 47 percent of images shared via Twitter, Apple's senior vice president of iOS software, Scott Forstall, told developers at WWDC this week. Apple's iPhone 4 remains the most popular camera on Flickr, with iPhones 4, 4S, 3GS and 3G occupying the top four slots in the cameraphones category on that service.

It makes sense for Apple to pursue this advantage, hence the sharing features of PhotoStream and the iOS-wide integration of support for Twitter and Facebook in version 6. The iPhone 4S boasts an 8-megapixel camera capable of capturing HD video.

The next iPhone is expected to offer a 4-inch display. KGI analyst Mingchi Kuo, believes the iPhone 5 will also offer an 8-megapixel camera equipped with a maximum aperture of 2.4 rather than the current camera's 2.2, which should improve image capture.

Today we learn of a recent patent filing: "Back Panel for a Portable Electronic Device with Different Camera Lens Options". This describes a means by which will allow user to change their iPhone's camera lens for different shoots -- so you can imagine long range lenses, macro lenses and so on.

"It would be desirable to provide a structure for a compact device that allows the end user to reconfigure the optical arrangement of the device while retaining the benefits of assembling the device using a pre-assembled digital imaging subsystem," the filing reads.


[ABOVE: A schematic taken from the lenses patent filing, c/o Freepatents online.]

Moving parts? I doubt it

One element of the description rings false:

"A portable electronic device includes a digital imaging subsystem with a lens having an optical axis. A case encloses and supports the digital imaging subsystem in a first defined positional relationship to the case. A removable panel is coupled to the case and held in a second defined positional relationship to the case that covers the digital imaging subsystem without the removable panel being directly connected to the digital imaging subsystem. An optical component is supported by the removable panel such that the optical component is aligned with the optical axis and alters optical characteristics of the digital imaging subsystem. The device may include a power supply and an electronic control system coupled to the digital imaging subsystem and the power supply enclosed in and supported by the case. Electrical connectors may couple the power supply and the electronic control system to an electrical component on the removable panel."

The inclusion of this removable back plate exposes the camera optics, enabling lens changes on the fly. This doesn't ring true to me -- I can't imagine Apple would really choose to put such moving parts inside its phone.

Third-party vendors, including Olloclip, already offer lenses for existing iPhones, these secure to the device by a clip system.

A better connection come from BubblePix, which offers a clever little system which enables you to capture 360-degree images using an iPhone. This product ships with an iPhone case, to which the device clips.

How important is photography to iPhone 5?

While Apple doesn't seem likely to exploit the patented technology on future iPhones, its focus on photography (an industry Steve Jobs had his eyes on as another sector primed for Apple-led disruption) will continue.

That focus suggests that the iPhone 5 launch in September/October will be accompanied by other features to boost photography on iPhones. I'm predicting upgrades to Apple's iPhoto app, equipped with built-in Twitter and Facebook export and -- presumably -- the chance to make some images public and geo-tagged as available media within Apple's soon-to-ship mapping application.

Apple's iOS 6 beta's Maps app is currently attracting criticism for not offering the depth of detail of Google Maps. Driving data seems lacking -- Apple intends ceding some of this to third party developers -- and the quantity of included information seems scant, despite the Flyover function.

What's important to note when dealing with the Maps app as it is right now is that this is a beta version of the final product. Apple has a fleet of planes gathering new data, and the final shipping version seems likely to include more data and more visual representation than the beta includes.

(Though hopefully the Indian Ocean will no longer be situated in the Arctic Ocean, and the North Pacific won't be found in the middle of Africa.)

It does, however, seem appropriate for Apple to invite iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S users to share images of streets, tourist attractions and relevant local data via its mapping tools, in the same way as Google Earth. With Apple's devices clearly dominant across most online photo services, it seems likely many will also choose to share their pictures that way.

Also read:

WWDC 2012: Apple iPhone 5 details, Retina Display Macs

WWDC 2012: Apple's iPhone and the iRobot supply chain

WWDC 2012: Facebook integration, Apple Maps for Fall's iOS 6

Apple WWDC: iOS 6 says farewell to Google Maps

iPhone 5 release: Apple's September launch, what to expect

Computerworld's WWDC 2012 topic page

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