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iGroups: Apple's New iPhone Social App in Development

Apple is working on a new communications based social networking application that they're simply calling "iGroups." According to the documents published by the USPTO today, Apple's iGroup will be a new service that will work on your iPhone and likely work with MobileMe. The idea is to allow groups of friends or colleagues attending such events as a concert, a tradeshow, business meeting, wedding or rally to stay in communication with each other as a group to share information or reactions to live events as they're occurring. The technology behind the new iGroup social networking applications works with a very sophisticated cryptographic key generation system to ensure security and privacy of your communications. Interestingly, the patent states that if one of the devices in your group happens to be without true positioning technology, it appears that Apple's MobileMe service will provide some sort of "virtual GPS" capability to that user so that they could be aware of the locations of others in the group. Apple's patent provides us with example scenarios of both a concert and WWDC event to clarify the service. This marks Apple's fourth social networking application made public since the start of 2010 - which clearly indicates that Apple now has this hot new sector in its crosshairs. 

Patent Background


Social networking has revolutionized the way people communicate and share information with one another. Online social networks are communities of individuals who share interests and activities or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. Many social network services are web-based and provide a collection of various ways for users to interact, such as chat, messaging, email, video, voice chat, file sharing, blogging and discussion groups. Social network websites typically provide tools and communication infrastructures for organizing and managing social networks.


During private or public events (e.g., concert, tradeshows, business meetings, weddings, rallies), 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 websites, the individual would have to collect personal information from the contacts, manually create a social network on the social network website and invite the contacts to join. Some of the contacts, however, may not be registered with the social network website, and will have to register before joining the social network.


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. 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.


Group Formation Based on Anonymous Broadcast Information


Apple's patent FIG. 1 illustrates an example system 100 that allows group formation based on anonymous broadcast information.


In some implementations, the system generally includes one or more groups 102 coupled to a trusted service 104 through one or more networks 108 (e.g., the Internet, wireless network). The system could include any number of groups, and each group can include any number of devices and access devices.


A group is defined as one or more devices that are in transmission range of each other for a period of time, referred to as a "contact time." A contact time can occur during private or public events or meetings. For example, members of a group can include attendees at a concert or sporting event, attendees at a business meeting, attendees at a tradeshow, attendees at an event or party, etc.


A token is a snippet or chunk of data that can be broadcast by a device to other devices that are within the transmission range of the broadcasting device. Tokens can be matched or otherwise correlated with other tokens by the trusted service 104.


A token could be a cryptographic key generated by a cipher running on the broadcasting device. Some examples of ciphers include but are not limited to: block ciphers, stream ciphers, symmetric key algorithms (e.g., triple-DES, AES), etc. Tokens are anonymous in that one cannot use a token to identify a particular device or its user/owner. Tokens can be rotated or changed periodically to prevent the tokens from being tracked by other devices, and the devices being subjected to frequency or pattern attacks. In some implementations, users can regain their anonymity by simply changing the cryptographic keys for their token generator.


The Rock Concert Scenario


To further explain the concept of token exchange, a scenario at rock concert will now be described. In this example scenario, a number of attendees of a rock concert set their Bluetooth-enabled devices to Token Exchange mode. All devices within transmission range of each other at the concert and that are set in Token Exchange mode begin exchanging and storing tokens. These devices are collectively referred to as a Group, and the users associated with devices in the Group are referred to as Group members. The Token Exchange is referred to as a "contact event." The contact event could be associated with a "contact time" defined by timestamps provided to the trusted service.


Either during the concert or sometime thereafter, each of the members upload their collected tokens to the trusted service 104 – which in my view is referring to a service such as Apple's MobileMe. On the other hand, the trusted service could be a trusted third party that maintains a secure database 110 of device data, member data and encryption keys and/or other secret data. The database includes additional information and data that can be used by the trusted service to form Groups based on tokens. Members could set up accounts with the trusted service using secure communication channels. For example, a member could subscribe to a service by signing up through a website or portal operated by the trusted service. Personal information and secret data could be provided by the member to the trusted service through the secure website or portal.


A key feature of the "rock concert" example described above is that a trusted service could infer the members of a group by collecting tokens from a few devices at the concert. For example, the musician's devices could exchange tokens with devices operated by users in the front row of the stadium. The front row devices could then exchange tokens with devices behind the front row, etc. Thus, token exchanges can occur in a "daisy chain" manner starting from one or more initiating devices. In this example, the musician's devices would be the group "anchor" that defines the "group." The "anchor" devices could be strategically placed around the stadium and used to triangulate the location of the users in the stadium based on their respective distances from the "anchor" devices. Since there is often enough physical separation between concert-goer devices and devices outside the stadium that the trusted service could determine which devices are contained in the stadium using short-range communication technology (e.g., Bluetooth technology, Wi-Fi). In some implementations, the "anchor devices" can be access devices 114, 118.


The token metadata could be used by the trusted service, for example, to further disambiguate tokens and provide a "virtual GPS" capability to devices that do not include or have access to positioning technologies.


User Interfaces related to iGroups


As you could see in Patent FIG. 4 below, the iPhone will have a new icon, referred to here as object 444 or "iGroups." When activated, you could invite a user to join a Group formed by the trusted service 104 – which could be Apple's MobileMe.


3 - iGROUPS - GUIs 

An iGroup Usage Example: Apple's World Wide Developer Conference


In the example shown, the trusted service formed a Group #1 which includes identified users Jeff Bush, Donald Huang and Daryl Low. The Group was based on a contact that occurred on Jun. 9, 2008, at 747 Howard Street, San Francisco, Calif. In this example, the mobile device 400 belongs to Daryl Low who is being invited to join the Group #1. Under a Status column, the device indicates that Jeff Bush, Donald Huang have joined the Group. Daryl Low is listed as "pending" since he has not yet joined. Also displayed is a tag field which includes the name "2008 WWDC." A personal "tag" can be provided by each of the Group members and changed later by that member. The tags facilitate searching a database of Groups stored at the trusted service 104 or locally on the device 400, as described in reference to FIG. 5B.


The user interface 500 is one example of possible user interface design. Other designs are possible, including designs with more or fewer user interface elements (e.g., including animated elements and transitions) and which convey more or less information to the user.


Apple's patent FIG. 5B illustrates an example user interface for allowing a user to manage groups formed. Continuing with the example of FIG. 5A, Daryl has now joined Group 2008 WWDC as indicated by his joined status. A profile 504 is displayed summarizing information about the Group, including the name, date formed, a description, a number of unread emails from Group members, a number of scheduled calendar events for the Group. Other information can be provided as desired.


In addition to the profile, several option buttons can be presented. A Settings option 506 can be used to enter a settings page to allow the user to set various parameters related to the Group, such as communication parameters related to calendars, contacts, SMS and mail services. A Calendar option 508 launches a calendar application or service which can provide a calendar populated with calendar events related to the Group and include tools for managing calendar events. An Address Book option 510 can be used to launch and address book application or service which can provide and address book that can be populated with contact information of Group members. An SMS option 512 can be used to launch an SMS application or service for sending instant messages to Group members, including broadcast messages to all members. A Mail option 514 launches a mail application or service for emailing members.


In some implementations, tokens could be used to track the movements of a device. In such an embodiment, the tokens are like "cookie crumbs" that are left behind at different geographic locations. A trusted service could use the tokens to construct a map display with placemarks identifying geographic locations of contact events. The placemarks can be shared with other users.


4 - TOKEN EXCHANGE - iPhone Architecture Example

Apple credits a new engineering team consisting of Daryl Low, Ronald Huang, Puneet Mishra, Gaurav Jain, Jason Gosnell and Jeff Bush as the inventors of patent application 20100070758, originally filed in Q3 2008.


It should be noted that Apple may have to once again work something out with the current developer of iGroups for the name - or Apple may simply choose another brand prior to launching the service.


Notice: Patently Apple presents only a brief summary of patents with associated graphic(s) for journalistic news purposes as each such patent application and/or grant is revealed by the U.S. Patent & Trade Office. Readers are cautioned that the full text of any patent application and/or grant should be read in its entirety for further details. For additional information on any patent reviewed here today, simply feed the individual patent number(s) noted in this report into this search engine.


Other Social Networking Patents from Apple in 2010:

Location Based Social Networking & Video Calling Coming to iPhone

Apple iPhone to Gain Social Networking & Public Transit Apps

Apple Ramping up Applications for Quattro Wireless – Again



Great stuff! i got a lot of inspiration from this post. it's very interesting .... Thanks

Jack Purcher

I'd like to thank a few people who have taken the time to make a comment on Patently Apple this morning - yet won't have their comments appear on our site.

Patently Apple is not the proper forum to air out what you perceive to be a patent dispute. If you have a problem with patents in general, please contact the USPTO. If you're a patent holder who thinks that they have first rights to a technology, then that should be taken up with Apple's legal team at: [email protected].

Yuri A.

I like Apple products and the iPhone.I think that the device and new creations to existing protocols are patentable yet think that the network principles have already been done before.


I usually attend business shows with our sales team. We split up to cover the entire floor looking for the next great idea. We call each other when we find something, some use texting. But with this idea, we could set it before we go unto the show floor to be in a group under this arrangement and be able to collectively communicate ideas or point to booths that we should visit without the phone ringing etc.

Excellent idea for business shows.

Jack Purcher

@matt - the beginning of the second paragraph under concerts states the following: "Either during the concert or sometime thereafter..."

Apple is not "compelling" anyone to stay glued to their phones during a concert. Some people will text on occasion during a highlight of a show or just towards the end or thereafter so that they could commmunicate with friends where to meet after the concert etc.

This is a great idea.

Ethan Hunt

i agree with magnum that this may not get on the 4G but that we could expect it later.


This is the most ridiculous idea to patent to date. To think that a company wants to compel people to stay glued to their phone during a concert or solo performance..... is hands down, ridiculous.

Jack Purcher

The report clearly states that Apple is "working" on this. The leap to this being ready for the 4G in weeks or a few months is a little too optimistic and unrealistic, in my view.


On the other hand, not even a morsel of this news, has been sprouted on the iPhone 4G model. So for the meantime, just wait.

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