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Great minds think alike?

A patent application submitted by Apple last year — and made public just this morning — describes a flexible, magnetically attached cover for a tablet device. It’s similar to Apple’s existing smart cover for the iPad, except that this cover can also function as an input and display device. And one of the concepts described by Apple in the patent filing is an idea for using the cover as a keyboard.

The end result looks very similar to the signature feature of Microsoft’s Surface tablet computer.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has insisted that combining a tablet and a notebook would be like converging a toaster and a refrigerator, but the Apple patent application offers a different perspective. The addition of the keyboard to the cover adds “no significant weight or bulk to the tablet device and makes this configuration a true laptop alternative,” it says.

Apple applied for the patent on Aug. 11, 2011, but it wasn’t made public by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office until today. Microsoft announced the Surface in June of this year, and the device is slated for release in October. Apple hasn’t yet been granted a patent for the technology.

The two approaches aren’t exactly alike. For example, Apple envisions the cover being made of fabric and including a thin “flap screen” display above the keyboard. But the general concepts are similar. Here’s a an excerpt from the Apple patent filing, with numbers referring to the diagram above.

Having a separate keyboard attached to tablet device 402 while tablet device 402 is in a convenient viewing angle has a number of advantages. First, this configuration gives the user an experience much closer to the one enjoyed by laptop users. Second, by allowing the user to easily view the screen and by providing a convenient surface to type on, tasks such as word processing and email become much more efficient. Third, the experience is even better in some ways than the laptop experience as most laptops do not include rear facing touch controls for video or document manipulation. Finally, the addition of flap portion 420 adds no significant weight or bulk to the tablet device and makes this configuration a true laptop alternative. Even more functionality can be added to flap portion 420 by configuring it with flap screen 504, positioned either above (as shown in FIG. 5) or below keyboard 502. When configured above keyboard 502 flap screen 504 could allow for customized virtual keys to be added specific to each application, or could be used as a way to display additional application data. Flap screen 504 could also be configured with application toolbars, or even an active application list for easily switching between active applications. When flap screen 504 is configured below keyboard 502 it could act as a replacement for a touch pad, bringing the experience even closer to a conventional laptop configuration. With this configuration a cursor can even be implemented in applications where useful.

The keyboard option is just one of the approaches described in the Apple patent application. It’s clear that Apple has been envisioning lots of different uses for the iPad cover. Here’s a look at some of the other diagrams, including options for using the cover as an ambient solar power collector or an auxiliary display with — get this — a stylus as one possible input.

Be sure to check out the second reminder message in the diagram at the very bottom.

Previously on GeekWire: Video of Microsoft Surface keyboard/cover in action

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