New iPhone Patents Extend Apple's Control Over Apps, Potentially Squeezing Out Many Developers

Last Updated May 18, 2010 1:08 PM EDT

Apple (AAPL) applies for dozens of patents every year, and many of them muscle in on third-party technologies. But Apple isn't just leaping over bedroom developers anymore; it's attacking some very well-established app developers and platforms. It's even trying to compete with the language of Javascript, Web 2.0's lingua franca. But all its activities seem to have one goal: own local search. The company may even be planning an umbrella search engine to unify the approach.

Location Services, Done Discreet According to a filing released by the USPTO on May 13, Apple has successfully patented a service that would allow you to stand at the entrance of a restaurant and automatically load its menu. Of course, that's not all it does, but it's a potent example of a formidable new technology called "temporary location based apps."

Here's how it works: when you're near some place of interest (store, restaurant, building) an app appears giving you access to relevant information; when you walk away, it disappears. Movie theater times; public library catalogs; maps of a large convention hall; the possibilities are expansive.

Apple also has tucked a restaurant-seating service into this patent, says PatentlyApple.com, which would compete squarely with OpenTable, which currently offers an iPhone app. The rest of the functionality does what augmented-reality apps do -- provide contextual, location-based info, that is -- without making you look like an idiot for holding up your phone. Apps like Layar, which has been vaunted as the augmented-reality vanguard, could find its user ranks gutted by the sheer subtlety of Apple's approach.

An Apple Living Room Apple was also recently granted this rather byzantine patent on a "modular multi-media system" based on Macs and mobile devices. What does that mean, exactly? It's hard to tell, given the obscure nature of patent-language, but parse it closely and you'll find that it's purpose is to eliminate the limits of storing movies and music locally on an iPod or Mac. In other words, anything on your iPod would be accessible via your Mac, and visa versa, and both would have access to a "remote storage" area -- a media cloud that could be based on Apple's Lala acquisition.

This isn't purely a software patent. And since it can integrate devices as well as apps -- you could link your DVD player just as easily as your iPhoto library -- it might mean there's room for a revamped Apple TV to act as the "module controller," or hub. That puts devices like the Roku box, Vudu box (owned by Wal-Mart (WMT)) and the Sonos wireless music system (pictured right) at risk of abandonment, to say nothing of software like Rhapsody, which is a cloud-based music service. Sonos and Rhapsody are both non-trivial iPhone app developers.

Mobile Payments via iTunes Accounts The iPhone plaform has seen a flourish of add-on payment devices crop up lately, including the much-ballyhooed mobile payment case from Visa (V) (which lets you swipe your phone, instead of your credit card, to pay a retailer) and the Square mobile credit card reader. It's also gotten traction from other payments platforms like PayPal (EBAY) and Bump, to say nothing of smaller, sterling-backed startups like Facecash, the pet project of Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook disputed co-founder. But Apple, it turns out, is working on its own mobile payment system, according to a patent just approved on May 12. The app, called (at least, for now) "Transaction," can do peer-to-peer payments between iPhone OS devices and Macs, just like PayPal, using both near-field communications (i.e., Bluetooth and WiFi) and the camera. If it's privy to some privileged access to the iPhone's file system, or better yet, a user's iTunes account, then the impetus for users to go with a third-party payment app nearly disappears.

Functional iPhone Cases Visa's payment case is child's play compared to what Apple has planned for functional iPhone cases. This patent application, not yet approved, is for a case that reads the signature of your heartbeat. Why? So that it can identify the phone's owner and unlock automatically when you hold the phone in the palm of your hand.

As TheNextWeb points out, there are plenty of other applications for a device like this; better Nike+ integration might be on the way, or perhaps a health-oriented application that can warn high-risk heart patients of unusual activity. Either way, it could largely seal off a growing exercise app market, and ding other health-oriented apps, unless Apple decides to document the case's APIs and make them usable by developers -- something that would be uncharacteristic.

Fighting Flash and Javascript, too? Steve Jobs doesn't like Flash. But never one to be an idle hater, Jobs is apparently driving Apple to develop a Flash competitor. The mobile video platform wouldn't simply outmode Flash, however -- it would also pose a real threat to JavaScript and other popular Web-animation languages. A tweet from a Mac developer who's seen Gianduia, as the Apple platform is called, was duly impressed:
Blown away by gianduia. Cappuccino, SproutCore and JavascriptMVC have serious competition. Serious.
If all this is sounding like techno-babble, head over to the Apple Store's website and try to set up an appointment. You'll notice that the Web app they use to schedule the Genius Bar contains beautiful, fast animations, and other mini apps (like the Concierge service) that seem to run more fluidly than anything else on the Web. It's because they're using Gianduia. And if the technology proves to be the best way to show video or drawing on an iPhone OS device -- or the only way allowed by Apple -- mobile video and advertising platforms will suffer as they try to catch up to Apple's proprietary technology.

Gaming Untouched? Other less-aggressive iPhone OS improvements are also on the way, like always-on location services and system-wide Facebook "Like" integration, which will give third party developers new tools to work with, even as other opportunities disappear. But at this rate, the only sector of the iPhone's economy left unfingered by Apple entrants will be mobile gaming, where well-heeled startup Ngmoco has had free reign to create its own umbrella network, dubbed Plus+. Whether Apple leaves Ngmoco (which is an iFund company) to dominate gaming -- or lets anyone dominate anything on the iPhone platform ever again -- will affect how amply third party iPhone development is funded.

Patent diagrams courtesy of PatentlyApple.com.
  • Chris Dannen

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