A computer mouse that doubles as a scanner. A coating that keeps gadgets safe and dry even in the event of a spill. And a smartphone that rotates like a cat midair to avoid landing on its pretty glass face.
You may not see them on shelves anytime soon, but they are among the inventions that Apple protected in 2014 as it took in a bumper crop of new patents. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple 2,003 utility patents, which recognize new and useful processes and machines. That's a 13 percent increase over 2013 and more than triple the company's 2010 haul, according to IFI Claims, a patent analysis firm.
The steady increase in patents comes as Apple is doubling down on research and development, pouring $6 billion into its labs in fiscal year 2014, which ended in September. The investments suggest the company is laying the groundwork to find its next lucrative products, recognizing that it can't coast if it wants to stay in investors' good graces.
"When you're that big, and you want to continue to grow at a rate that the market is going to reward, you have to expand your business," Gartner analyst Van Baker said.
Although companies commonly patent ideas they do not ultimately use, the evolving makeup of Apple's portfolio points to spaces the company may be mining for future growth. Among other areas, the company has amassed more intellectual property related to television, a household staple ripe for reinvention, and cybersecurity, one of the tech industry's greatest headaches after a series of worrisome hacks.
The tech titan's burgeoning patent portfolio mirrors a shift underway in Silicon Valley and across the globe as companies worldwide are racing to protect nearly everything their engineers come up with. That said, many ideas Apple pitched to the patent office last year don't seem ready for market. One patent the company earned described an elaborate system to protect mobile phones when they fall. Sketches show a smartphone using sensors to change its orientation so it lands on a metal side and deploying jets, fans and gas canisters to slow its descent. Meanwhile, particularly delicate parts of the device such as the screen and home button would retract before impact.
Apple also landed a patent for a coating that would cause moisture to form beads, posing less danger to delicate electronics. The company also dreamed up creative accessories for the Mac. One patent covers a computer mouse that uses a sensor to capture the images it glides over and then displays them on its face.
Regardless of what Apple has cooking in its tightly veiled labs, experts say it is encouraging to see patent grants and R&D spending on the rise.