Does Apple Plan an Online iPhone/iPad Backup Service?

Last Updated Jun 6, 2011 7:44 AM EDT

There are third-party iOS apps that permit users to back up data to a cloud service and restore it when necessary. However, a patent application made public today suggests that those vendors may soon compete with Apple (AAPL) itself.

The application, titled Restoring Data to a Mobile Device, has the following abstract:

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for backing up and restoring data to a mobile device. In general, one aspect of the subject matter described in this specification can be embodied in methods that include the actions of receiving data from a mobile device to be included in a backup, the data including data associated with one or more mobile device applications; storing the data in a backup archive; generating a backup mapping file for each of the mobile device applications, each backup mapping file identifying each file in the backup associated with the respective application; and using the backup mapping files to restore the corresponding applications to the mobile device.
The abstract is separate from the claims, which are what can eventually receive legal protection through a granted patent. And clearly Apple can't patent the overall idea of online backup. However, the abstract does give a sense of the interesting approach that Apple has conceived.

As the application points out later, one of the problems with online backup is that it often is an all-or-nothing approach. You restore everything. But that might not be necessary:

Data can be lost or corrupted on a mobile device. For example, a user may need to perform a reset on the mobile device that erases some data. A user can also manually delete data from the mobile device, for example, by deleting particular installed applications or files from the mobile device.
Why restore everything when the problem might only be a few files? Apple's backup process would track associations between applications and their files. If restoration was necessary, the system could only send back the files that were necessary, reducing the amount of consumed bandwidth and, as a result, the consumer's bill, if restoration takes place over a cellular network.

Such a service could help explain Apple's new billion dollar data center in North Carolina. Offer backup as either a free or optional paid service, and Apple could find its customers consuming a lot of data, especially with the prospect of selling 150 million iOS devices this year.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.