Earlier this week it was revealed that Apple has filed to extend their trademark protection to include "toys, games and playthings, namely, hand-held units for playing electronic games; hand-held units for playing video games and stand alone video game machines". While this does seem like a clear sign that Apple is planning to develop and release some form of video game console, a trademark filing does not positively ensure that such a device will become a reality. Companies do this sort of thing all the time, extending their reach to include products and services that they may never actually produce, but want to stake a claim to, just in case. Here, however, there is some strong evidence to suggest that Apple might be planning to develop a stand-alone handheld gaming device.Today, I speculate on the features that would likely be included in an Apple handheld, in light of this intriguing news.
Overall Look and Feel
Given Apple's emphasis on design, any handheld system they released would have to look beautiful as well as play games. The company has followed a broad, mass-market stretegy with their previous devices, and they would probably want to go with a design that was simple, appealing to a large amount of consumers (not just gamers) and useful. The device would likely be small and sleek, probably no bigger than the current-gen iPhone, which would make it the smallest new handheld on the market. They might go with a white, plastic exterior — a color scheme which seems to be popular for gaming systems these days — or they might go with something completely iconoclastic to set themselves apart from competitors. Whichever strategy they chose, you can bet that it would be the most beautiful handheld gaming system the world has ever seen.
It is almost assured that any Apple-designed gaming system would feature a robust digital distibution service, probably piggy-backed on top of the successful iTunes store. Considering that the new MacBook Air doesn't even include an optical drive, it is pretty safe to assume that Apple would eschew any kind of solid media and go straight for digital downloads, similar to the mobile phone distribution model.
If we had to guess, we would say that games would probably weigh in the 100 - 500 MB range to keep download times reasonable, with 4-8 GB of flash-based storage on the device itself. If the device also moonlighted as a multimedia player, which seems to be Apple's prevailing strategy, the storage would likely be expanded to the 16-32 GB range, but remain flash-based to keep battery drain and moving parts to a minimum.
Undoubtedly, any handheld system released by Apple would leverage the multi-touch capability of their popular iPhone. However, it is likely that a dedicated gaming system would have to include a minimal amount of buttons, to aid with games that did not exclusively use the touch screen. Designers would likely include, at the minimum, a standard d-pad and two face buttons. These controls are familiar to all gamers, and would help brand the device as a dedicated gaming system. Given the company's preference for minimalist control schemes, we doubt that Apple would include shoulder buttons or any sort of analogue stick, unless they planned to compete for the "hardcore" audience, which is unlikely.
Another possibility is that the device could include some enhanced motion-sensing controls, similar to the tilt sensor that is curently found in the iPhone. This would open up many new and interesting control possibilities for handheld games (imagine an updated version of Marble Madness!).
Price Point and Marketing Strategy
This all sounds pretty good, but will be able to afford it? Considering that it will probably be oriented toward the casual / download market, it will not require a monster processor or graphics chip. Apple could release a competent gaming system with the same basic architecture and OS used in their current iPod Touch, which retails for around $300 USD. Casual gamers would be unlikely to pick up a dedicated system at that price, however, so we imagine that Apple would strive to get the price down to the $200 range if possible. Even this would make it the most expensive handheld system currently on the market, but Apple has never been one to fight its battles on the merits of price alone.