Apple has won itself a patent for what appears to be a tablet Mac.

The granted patent reads: " We claim the ornamental design for an electronic device, substantially as shown and described."

The move may not mean Apple intends shipping such a product, nor that the patented device will be a full-fledged Mac, as Apple moves further within the digital media markets.

Any purported plan to ship a Tablet Mac needs to consider recent IDC figures, which revealed that just 1.3 per cent of PCs sold in 2004 were Tablet PCs.

Bill Gates wants Tablet PCs mainstream

The market may not stand still. During a recent interview with Engadget, Microsoft co-founder and chief software architect Bill Gates said: "I believe in Tablet."

He added: "We’re not mainstream yet and we are hardcore, we’re going to make it better and better and get this thing to be mainstream. I’m very encouraged by this sales growth we’re seeing right now. The last three months has been the record by far. You know, it just takes time."

Gates added that Microsoft's future Longhorn OS will integrate Media Center and Tablet PC operating systems within it.

Designed iin Cupertino

Apple's Tablet PC patent application was filed in March 2004, and was granted by the US Patent Office yesterday.

The MacObserver reports the patent lists as inventors Apple CEO Steve Jobs and the company's industrial design chief, Jonathan Ive. It also includes Daniele De Iuliis, Richard Howarth, Eugene Whang, Matthew Rohrbach, Bartley Andre, Calvin Seid and Christopher Stringer.

The patent refers to several earlier granted patents, including: an Intel patent for an Internet appliance; a Neotronics patent for a monitor; a Hitachi patent for a portable computer; a Toshiba patent for a portable character and image processing apparatus; an IBM pen-based computer patent. The patent also refers to a number of others pertaining to Tablet PCs.

Apple owns several technologies that could be applied to a family of mobile devices, including a handwriting recognition technology called Inkwell.