Apple Eyes Social Nets with iGroups

Apple Inc. filed a patent application recently for mobile social networking technology called iGroups.

Mobile social networking is the use of location information ("I'm at MacWorld right now") to connect with colleagues ("you're here, too!") in a way that enhances social networking, replaces the exchanging of business cards and facilitates face-to-face meetings.

The filing of a patent doesn't mean Apple will turn this technology into a product. But I think they will -- and soon. Here's why.

How iGroups works

The iGroups technology would use either GPS, tower triangulation or some other location technology to identify the location of users' cell phones.

Any iPhone user could start a temporary social network based on location. Other people nearby could find the group and join

Artwork: Chip Taylor
. Members could chat, exchange files and do other things that one might do with a social network like Facebook.

The whole ad hoc group formation approach indicates that Apple understands the core value of social networking: exclusion. Let me explain.

If you want to communicate with everyone and anyone, you launch a blog or Twitter feed. But when you want to control who can see what you post, you turn to Facebook. Social networking sites get nearly all of their value from the control you have in blocking strangers and other undesirables. The iGroups system seems to do exactly that. Instead of creating a social network based on anybody and everybody who's nearby, iGroups enables the formation of closed groups. In order to be approved into a group, you might have to be both physically near and approved by the group creator.

Illustrations of the technology included with the patent show a view of the iGroups app on an iPhone that includes buttons for "Settings," "Calendar," "Address Book," "SMS," and "Mail." Once your group is established, you probably can -- with a single button-push -- invite all to a meeting, place all in your "Address Book," text everyone with a broadcast SMS or send everyone an e-mail.

It's curious and possibly telling that the patent talks about an "Address Book" app when the iPhone app is actually called "Contacts." One possibility is that this reflects a new way to look at a social network. While "Address Book" implies details about addresses and phone numbers," "Contacts" implies more of a social networking-oriented "people I know" idea. So maybe Apple is dropping the "Contacts" nomenclature in favor of iGroups social networking, but retaining a separate place for phone numbers and so on, which will be renamed as "Address Book." Or the patent application has a typo.

iGroups would enable you to check your iPhone to see who's nearby. You could do this manually during, say, a business meeting. Once you've formed your group, you could automatically capture their contact information into your Contacts app. No need for business cards.

While at a concert, political debate, trade show, company meeting or other big event, you could tune into a message board of other attendees. (And, of course, high school students will always have multiple social streams based on the physical location of the school, plus social clique.)

Another Apple patent emerged recently that hints at another use: A voice-chat feature. It's possible that Apple could build the ability for members of an iGroups group to communicate via push-to-talk.

The patent application also implies that "Media" is involved, and that makes sense. iGroups could be Apple's answer to Microsoft Zune's peer-to-peer music-sharing feature.

Why Apple will really launch iGroups

While many patent applications never become shipping products, I'm convinced iGroups is on a fast-track to full realization for three reasons:

* It's a great way to discover new media to purchase. By allowing limited sharing in location-based social groups, friends will swap movies, TV shows and music, which will lead to easy purchase right from the phone.

* While mobile social networking feels like the exotic, bleeding edge of technology today, it will become a standard cell-phone feature tomorrow. Mobile social networking will be just how contact applications work. All serious contact applications on phones will gain location awareness. Apple's is no exception.

* Whoever wins mobile social networking wins the contest for where contacts are stored. Google, FaceBook, Linked-In, Microsoft, Plaxo and others want you to keep all your contacts on their sites and services. In the future, whoever facilitates the best mobile social networking experience will be where people park their address books. Apple wants your contacts to live on its servers. And that's why Apple has a strong incentive to get this out fast.

The iGroups patent points toward a new world of mobile social networking from Apple iPhones. Best of all, it appears likely that this technology will hit as soon as Apple can possibly implement it.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike atmike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him onTwitteror his blog,The Raw Feed.

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