Apple Computer ( AAPL) may be getting into the mobile phone market after all.

The company last week filed a series of applications to trademark the phrase "Mobile Me" to cover, among other uses, the sending and receiving of "data, images, audio, video and documents ... over local or global communications networks." The filing suggests that the company is getting ready to dip into the mobile-phone business, said American Technology Research analysts Shaw Wu and Albert Lin in a note issued Thursday.

"We believe this is further indication of AAPL's strategic direction to extend its iPod + iTunes and Mac franchises into new business areas including smart phones, value-added mobile content services, and the broader consumer electronics space," according to the analysts.

An Apple representative did not return a call seeking comment.

Rumors have been swirling for months that Apple would launch its own mobile phone and, potentially, its own mobile phone service. The company dominates the digital music space with its iPod players and iTunes store. But many analysts believe that other companies' music-playing mobile phones will eventually threaten the company's pre-eminence in digital music.

Last September, Apple took a step toward meeting this challenge when Motorola ( MOT) unveiled the ROKR phone, which uses Apple's iTunes software. But the phone has been a dud with critics, who have complained about the paucity of songs it can hold -- about 100 -- and its inability to download songs over the wireless networks.

The feeling among critics and analysts has been that Apple intentionally hobbled the device so that it wouldn't cut into sales of iPods. But many analysts have argued that Apple would eventually come out with a successor device, potentially one of its own making. That expectation has been fueled by the fact that the company owns the iPhone.org Internet address.

Indeed, a number of analysts and Apple watchers expected the company to announce its own mobile phone at the MacWorld conference this week. Instead, the only new hardware-related announcements the company made at the conference was that it is putting Intel ( INTC) chips inside of two of its computer product lines.

Apple's "Mobile Me" trademark applications -- there are four of them -- do little to settle the debate over whether or when the company will enter the mobile phone market directly. The claims made under the applications certainly include mobile phone services and the ability to download music over mobile phone networks. They also cover what might be considered smartphones, namely handheld devices that can receive and transmit email and instant messages wirelessly and synchronize with online databases.

But the claims go beyond those that might be strictly related to mobile phone handsets or services. They cover the transmission of antivirus software over Internet or mobile phone networks, for instance, as well as computer help desks.

Furthermore, Apple has been known in the past to pursue patent or trademark protection for products that never see the light of day.

In their note, Wu and Lin acknowledge that Apple's ambitions, indicated by the trademark applications, go beyond -- and may not necessarily include -- the mobile phone market.

"We believe "Mobile Me" could also be related to location profiles that could be stored in dongle-type keychain devices or perhaps a future iPod or cell phone that would carry user profiles, including bookmarks, cookies and preferences that would allow people to carry their personalized computing experience wherever they go. We believe this information could be transferred through USB and/or Bluetooth to the host client," they said.

Still apparently riding the enthusiasm generated at MacWorld, shares of Apple were up 65 cents, or about 1%, to $84.55, in late afternoon trading on Thursday.

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