Apple's iGroups Patent Has Strong Retail Potential

Apple has applied for a patent (full details of the Patent application are here) for a concept called iGroups, where iPhone users could privately share information with others in their groups who happen to be in a very specific place, such as a music concert, a tradeshow, a rally or a wedding. The patent includes a token-based security approach that should provide sufficient security.

Apple's approach is interesting in and of itself, but how might it apply to retail? What if this approach was applied to a very large shopping mall? Or perhaps even a large, freestanding department store?

I happened to be in Macy's flagship store in New York this week, and that huge building would be perfect for iGroups, were it not for the fact that it has so many wireless deadzones. While attending a conference there on Tuesday (March 23), I was, of course, seated for the whole event in the middle of such a zone. So much for Tweeting interesting tidbits from panel discussions in real time.

What practical benefit could iGroups have for consumers? The true advantage of the approach is in the discovery of online contacts who just happen to be there when you are. If a consumer goes to the mall with nine of her friends and they want to split up to divide and conquer the shopping, there are so many easier ways to communicate wirelessly. The iGroup idea only moves from mildly interesting to truly powerful when you factor in the discovery.

Consumer A is shopping and trying to find something but doesn't want to trust any of the store associates. The consumer blasts out a help message to the crowded mall, with iGroup searching for any match from anybody on any of that consumer's various lists. After 15 seconds, it finds three matches. The discovered matches might potentially find it just as interesting to be "found."

This approach assumes that the consumer's lists are reasonable. Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn users who have thousands of contacts, many of whom are friends of friends of friends, won't see the benefit because they will most likely not recognize the person greeting them or offering to help. Regardless of Apple's security, if an iGroup is not limited to a relatively small collection of friends and associates, it will quickly lose its charm. Yes, this is somewhat of a Catch-22: The larger the number of potential friends, the greater the chance that you'll find one at the mall when you happen to ping.

Apple's explanation of its technology is fairly straightforward: "During private or public events, a typical individual may have many brief contacts with individuals for which they would like to have further correspondence post event. With conventional social network Web sites, the individual would have to collect personal information from the contacts, manually create a social network on the social network Web site and invite the contacts to join. Some of the contacts, however, may not be registered with the social network Web site, and will have to register before joining the social network," the Patent office filing said.

"Modern wireless devices can operate in an ad hoc mode (e.g., Bluetooth personal area network [PAN] or piconet), which allows wireless devices within range of each other to discover and communicate in peer-to-peer fashion without involving central access points. The ad hoc network, however, only exists while the participating devices are in close proximity to each other. There is no facility for regenerating the network at a later time to allow users to continue discussions or exchange content," the filing said. "Users who wish to participate in a PAN have to manually configure their devices or adaptors to do so, which can be tedious and time consuming. The informal nature of ad hoc networks, coupled with the lack of a centralized and secure access points, makes ad hoc networks susceptible to snooping and other attacks."

The patent application then explained Apple's proposed security approach.

"A number of devices co-located at a geographic location can broadcast and receive tokens. Tokens can be exchanged using a communication link having limited communication range. Tokens that are received by a device can be stored locally on the device and/or be transmitted to a trusted service operating remotely on a network. In some implementations, the tokens can be stored with corresponding timestamps to assist a trusted service in matching the tokens with tokens provided by other devices," the application said. "The trusted service can perform an analysis on the tokens and timestamps to identify devices that were co-located at the geographic location at a given contact time, which can be determined by the timestamps. A group can be created based on results of the analysis. Users of the Group devices can be invited to join a group. User interfaces, filters and search engines can be provided to the users to enable users to search and manage groups. The groups can be used with various applications (e.g., calendars, address books, E-mail, instant messaging) to provide additional content and services to the users. If the geographic location of the group at the contact time is known, then members of the group can be targeted to receive location-based services (LBS) and content."