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Apple's Secret Hiding Place

Want to know what the iPod maker is cooking up next? The answer may be found half a world away.

If you want an idea of what's next to come out of

Apple Computer's

(AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report

idea factory, you might want to look to Hong Kong. Or maybe Singapore. Or possibly even Europe.

But you don't need an airline ticket. Instead, you can take a virtual trip on the Internet to the trademark offices of those countries and areas. Do a search for "Apple Computer" and you'll come up with all the phrases and images Apple has trademarked -- or applied to trademark -- in recent years.

For many of Apple's recent products and services, such as the iPod shuffle and nano lines and the Aperture photo-editing program, the company had filed a related trademark in locales far from its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters months before they were launched.

Of course, some of the trademarked images and phrases have yet to show up in actual Apple products -- and some never may. But the trademarks and filings not yet assigned to an actual product give a potential glimpse into what the company has in development.

And that continuing development is key. Although the popularity of the iPod has revived Apple in the past three years and sent its stock soaring, many investors are counting on the company to expand its product lineup in coming years to help continue its rapid growth.

Among the more interesting phrases Apple has sought to trademark of late:

iPod Hi-F, which the company filed to protect in Hong Kong last September. As might be expected, the filing indicates that the phrase relates to a device that would be similar to the company's iPod digital music players, but might incorporate "radio receivers, amplifiers, sound recording and reproducing devices ... loudspeakers, multiple speaker units, microphones."

Numbers, filed in Malaysia last January. Rumors have abounded that Apple has developed a spreadsheet program similar to Microsoft's Excel that it would plug into its iWork suite. But this may or may not be it; a related trademark filing on the phrase in the European Union says that the phrase may be used to cover accounting services and the "compilation of information into computer databases," but the filing also mentions that phrase could be used to cover "computer software for use in creating fonts and titles for film, video, and multimedia ... multimedia computer software; and computer software for interactive games."

MacPro, or Mac Pro, which the company filed to protect in New Zealand last November. According to the filing, the phrase is meant to cover a series of devices related to computers. Apple is in the middle of moving its computer line from running on PowerPC chips made by IBM and Freescale Semiconductor to processors made by Intel . One of the first of Apple's computer lines to make the move is its PowerBook professional notebooks, which the company renamed the MacBook Pro line, indicating a desire to disassociate its computers from the PowerPC architecture. Still to be updated: the company's PowerMac line of professional desktops, which may be a good candidate for the MacPro label.

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An Apple representative didn't return a call seeking comment on the company's trademark practices.

Trademark law allows a company to bar others from using a name or graphic symbol for a particular product or service. International regulations allow a company to file for a trademark in one country and essentially transfer that protection to another country months later. Under those international rules, the second country has to treat a transferred trademark application as if it was filed there on the same date that it was filed in the first country.

In practice it means that Apple could keep the potential name of a new product for the U.S. market under wraps there until it officially unveils the product.

Even if it hadn't sought trademark protection in the U.S. prior to the launch, it could still get first dibs on the phrase or symbol related to the new product if it had applied for a trademark in another country in advance of the launch.

Apple's strategy of filing for trademark protection in foreign countries ahead of filing in the U.S. came to light with its

recent application to protect the phrase "Mobile Me." The company filed to trademark the phrase -- potentially to cover a direct move into the mobile-phone business -- earlier this month in the U.S.

The company has yet to unveil a "Mobile Me" product or service. But evidently, it has been considering doing so for at least six months. Apple first filed to protect the phrase back in July in Hong Kong.

The company has followed a similar pattern with products it actually has released. Although it introduced the flash-memory based iPod nano last September, it didn't seek to trademark the product's name in the U.S. until December. But it had applied for trademark protection on the phrase way back in June in Hong Kong.

Similarly, Apple sought to trademark the phrase "Mac Mini" in Singapore in August 2004, some five months before the company actually

unveiled its bargain-priced desktop computer.

To be sure, a trademark filing doesn't mean Apple actually will release a product or service bearing that name -- the company has abandoned dozens of trademarks around the world, such as iCandy in the U.S. or iRecords in Singapore.

And the company has held many other trademarks for years without ever applying them to an actual product or service. Among them: iWrite, which the company filed for in Hong Kong in September 2003, and iPhone, which the company filed for in Switzerland in April 2002.