Jobs “Happy” About Tablet Surprise to Come

Steve Jobs is “extremely happy.” But it’s not because Psystar is dead. And it’s not because he’s been named CEO of the Multiverse or some other such end-of-year award. He’s happy because that Tablet he’s been working on almost exclusively since he returned to Apple (s aapl) in the summer is nearing completion. We think.

Writing in the New York Times last week, Nick Bilton quoted two unnamed sources (so we really only have his word to go on) in a piece that definitely got Apple fans’ hearts racing and wallets twitching;

…the icing on the cake comes from a current senior employee inside Apple. When one of my colleagues here asked if the rumors of the Apple tablet were true, and when we could expect such a device, the response from his source was, “I can’t really say anything, but, let’s just say Steve is extremely happy with the new tablet.”

When El Jobso is happy, Apple is happy. When Apple is happy, they release stuff – shiny, sexy new stuff. And when Apple releases new stuff, we all get a little poorer. Financially. Obviously the emotional and spiritual gains of owning a shiny new gadget with a glowing fruit on it far outweighs the usually crazy-high asking price set by the Cupertino mothership.

Bilton also added;

Yet another recently departed Apple employee tipped me: “You will be very surprised how you interact with the new tablet.”

So, aside from Steve’s happiness, what’s this ‘surprise’? MacRumors points to a patent application published on Christmas Eve that might provide a clue about what’s to come. I wouldn’t want to spoil any potential surprise, so if you don’t want to read about “Keystroke Tactility Arrangement on a Smooth Touch Surface” it’s best not to read-on.

Still here? Good. Patent #20090315830 is actually an extension of sorts, fleshing out an earlier patent filed in 2008, which described a method for a “Momentarily Enabled Electronic Device” (#20090315411 for those of you keeping a record). The short of it is that these patents together detail the major drawback of smooth-surface keyboards – they’re not user friendly. Apparently, users prefer actual physical keys to perfectly flat “virtual” keys.

But the problem with physical keys, as Señor Steve so eloquently explained at the iPhone announcement in 2007, is “…they get in the way.” The solution, then, would be some sort of temporary physical keyboard that comes to life when we need to type, but magically vanishes when we want to swipe. And when I say “vanishes” I really mean it goes away, completely, returning the full surface area to us for touchy-feely operations.

It sounds like science fiction, but these patents essentially describe methods for providing just that – a temporary, malleable physical keyboard that “pops up” through the normally-smooth touchscreen surface and slinks away again when it’s not needed.

I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty awesome. It sounds a lot like a piezoelectric keyboard to me, a technology that’s been around for decades but not very successfully implemented in consumer electronic devices.

I’m not going to spend time speculating much on other potential interaction surprises; voice control, for instance, would be a natural extension of technology already found in iPods and iPhones (and, to a far more limited extent, Mac OS X itself) but voice control is almost always cumbersome and unrewarding despite occasional flurries of excitement around the concept. Eye tracking or gesture-tracking are possible, but even less likely (though they would certainly be surprising!)

No, at this point, we have reasonably compelling evidence for only one big surprise, and it’s buried in the patents linked above. And while piezoelectric keyboards (or however Apple achieves this technology) aren’t too new or surprising for geeks as long-in-the-tooth as me, you can bet your iMac it’ll leave the general public stunned.

Especially when Steve Jobs takes the stage and makes the announcement in inimitable Jobsian style. Just twenty nine days and counting…