11 Uses of Apple's New iGroups Mobile Social Networking Patent

Map: Cupertino/ Silicon ValleyThe USPTO just granted Apple a patent for iGroups, a mobile social networking application that could have immense value in this arena, especially if the relevant features are released as part of a public API for the company’s mobile devices – namely iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Social Times takes a look at some of this patent’s details, followed by a list of potential mobile social networking uses.

Apple iGroups – U.S. Patent 20100070758 – The Details

The text of U.S. Patent 20100070758 is fairly lengthy and very technically dense. Patently Apple discovered the patent, assigned by the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) on Mar 18, 2010, and give a summary of details –– which in itself is lengthy. The gist of the features for iGroups, the mobile social networking application described in the patent, is as follows:

  1. Intended for Apple iPhone devices, but presumably would work on other Apple mobile devices that have GPS.
  2. Uses virtual GPS for devices without real GPS. (Potentially requires Apple’s MobileMe service.)
  3. Enabled, “trusted” anchor devices — at a public or private event — which are accessible via WiFi or Bluetooth initiate the creation of ad hoc groups. Patently Apple interpreted “trusted devices” to include mobile apps such as Apple’s MobileMe.
  4. Membership is opt-in. Proximity-based alerts are generated per (iPhone) device as they are discovered. Device holders would be asked via an alert if they want to join a group. Details of the group, including membership, can be displayed.
  5. Information can be sent to opted-in members via SMS or email. Information about unread messages can be displayed.
  6. Ad hoc groups can become persistent groups after an event, with member contact information stored somewhere online. (Where info is stored would depend on how Apple implements this patent.)
  7. Info stored can include contact details per member.
  8. Group-related info includes a calendar of events.
  9. Geo-location breadcrumbs — This could potentially be used to map event locations or to track a device’s path.
  10. As long as one device is the “anchor,” all other nearby and enabled devices can be discovered by the anchor device, or vice versa. Devices that have joined the ad hoc group could also become propagators to other devices. As Patently Apple speculated, imagine a ripple of device discovery from, say, an event stage and through the audience, from row to row outwards.

Consider that Apple 4G phones, which might be announced in April or May, are rumored to possibly have NFC (Near Field Communications) chips, which are similar in concept to RFID chips and work on shortrange waves. So this NFC be an alternative to using Bluetooth or WiFi to form PANs (Personal Area Networks).

Diagram: Apple iGroups patent -figure 1
[Image via Patently Apple]

11 iGroups Application Uses

In general, this patent would allow Apple to play in the location-based social networking space with their own application. Or they might expose the social networking methods in the form of a public API for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad mobile devices, to allow third party developers to build their own social applications. Here are some possible uses, though it should be noted that these all assume that participants have iPhones or any other devices that Apple would give access to iGroups.

  1. Crowdsourcing ideas or moods. Want to know what fans at a sporting event are thinking? Alert them to prize offers for joining an ad hoc network and particpating in an on-the-spot poll.
  2. Event networking and socializing. E.g., at conferences and tradeshows. Organizers and exhibitors could potentially alert opt-in group members, create a persistent social network, then forward information or prizes after the event, or alert people to parties and followup events.
  3. Enhanced nightclubbing and partying. Build out the in-person social networking features of existing mobile apps such as Foursquare, MyTown, Gowalla, and Loopt. Could be used to enhance the dating scene at bars, nightclubs, eateries or wherever singles go to socialize. E.g., initiate a pub crawl or similar event.
  4. Meetups and meetings. Not sure about the other areas, but Silicon Valley is a hotbed of tech meetups. Group and member info could be shared for social networks related to regular meetings of any sort. This applies to business meetings as well.
  5. Rallies and flash mobs. If you’re part of a group that organizes political or other rallies, iGroups can help you organize your support network for a current event and future events. Flash mobs are formed for fun, protests or publicity, and organizers would benefit in a manner similar to that of rally organizers.
  6. Treasure hunts, rally races or “Amazing Race” types of adventures. Participants check-in and join the necessary social network, then get access to relevant map locations. Complete a task, then check in to get your next task. You could also marry iGroups features with some of the principles of Twitter Tweetups. Tweetups would broadcast the event info beforehand. Custom Google Maps would direct interested parties to the appropriate location(s). Apple’s iGroups features would then help create a mini social network, pinging each enabled device as it came into range of an “anchor” device.
  7. Weddings, parties or other private getogether. Large private events can get unmanageable. iGroups could be used to assist guests who have arrived, provide info about last-minute lodgings, venue changes, etc. One possible method to use is to first create the event invitations on Facebook, direct attending participants to a private Facebook Page with further details, and an application that sends event info to an (Apple) mobile device.
  8. Group tours. Travelers often prefer to visit places in groups, but sometimes want to make a sidetrip. iGroups could used to have tour participants check in, and if they want detour, be able to stay in touch with the main group.
  9. Location-based advertising. Coupon sites such as Groupon or coupon aggregators such as 8 Coupons could alert members to nearby deals. While 8 Coupons already does this in essence, if you use their interactive map, using iGroups, participating vendors could use anchor devices to detect other enabled devices, then alert them to current deals and opt-in membership. Member contact info on a device would act as a proxy for a printed coupon, and could be accessed by the vendor managing the group. This methodology allows for implementing time-limited deals in local shops.
  10. Search and rescue parties. Search and rescue parties often have passionate yet untrained volunteers, and missions can be hazardous. iGroups would allow all volunteers to be accounted for at the start and end of a search and rescue mission, as well as allow individual members to alert others to potential hazards, or request assistance.
  11. Crowd control. Large sporting or other public events can be a headache for organizers. When one exit gets clogged but another is free, security staff could alert opt-in members of alternate routes, even providing a map of exit locations and how to get there. Additional information could include recommendations for public transit or the best highways to take away from the event venue.

As you can see by these few examples, Apple’s iGroups mobile social networking patent has incredible, impactful potential. However, the greatest benefit would be with existing social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. This is supposedely Apple’s fourth social network-related patent granted this year. One that sounds especially promising, in tandem with some of the above uses, is the possibility of location-based social networking & video calling. These geo-location patents have immense mobile social networking value and, if aggregated together, would make a killer API for mobile social apps on Apple’s i-devices.

Apple isn’t the only company receiving social networking patents. While searching for related patents, I came across Meetings near me, granted to Microsoft in Feb 2010, and another granted to Google granted earlier this week. In light of other patents, it seems that iGroups will be even more valuable if Apple lets non-Apple devices participate, though that’s less likely, given the company’s tendency to be “closed.” Further discussions of Apple’s new iGroups patent can be found on Techmeme.

What do you think of this patent? Can you come up with any other application ideas that you’d care to share in the comments?