Three new patent applications that just became public on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website reveal that Apple is now patenting ideas for mobile applications. Specifically, these patents applications describe iPhone apps that would aid in making travel arrangements, booking hotels and shopping.
The patent applications were uncovered this morning by wireless news site Unwired, which called the development "scary" and equated Apple to a patent troll. If granted, these apps would allow Apple to patent ways in which mobile applications function, including everything from mobile boarding passes to store locator functions.
Here's what each app would do:
The travel application would help users make reservations, create an itinerary, view airport guides and information, use mobile boarding passes, check-in to flights remotely, access in-flight services, send and receive automatic arrival notifications and browse and send travel guides and promotions. The app would also have built-in social networking to aid in finding nearby friends or others in the vicinity interested in socializing.
The hotel application would allow a user to check in and check out via the app, order hotel services (e.g. making reservations at the spa, ordering or pre-ordering room service, scheduling wake up calls, etc.) book tickets for nearby attractions, schedule reminders and control room settings even when away from the room (think AC or audio and video equipment). The app could also be used as a universal remote control for the hotel room's TV and video equipment and could suggest programming choices based on stored user profile information.
The mobile shopping application focuses on connecting users to high fashion. The app would send invitations and reminders regarding fashion events, display fashion ads, allow the user to browse through inventory of stores, offer a store locator function, recommend items and check for availability, and display ratings and reviews for stores. Social networking is incorporated into this app, too, allowing friends to provide feedback on fashion items. The app could also provide details on items snapped using the phone's camera.
Why is Apple Competing with Its Developers?
While on the one hand, the above applications sound fantastic and certainly like things we would want to use, the fact that the patents are coming from Apple and not some enterprising startup is somewhat unsettling.
It's not unusual for Apple (or any company) to patent its ideas, but most of Apple's previous patents have been for technology improvements, like using wireless sensors as heart rate monitors, tracking sports in real time, allowing iPhones to "socially network" with each other when in proximity with one another or modifications to the iPhone's homescreen. Apple has not been in the habit of patenting actual mobile applications.
What does this mean for companies already building applications similar to these? For example, OpenWays, which has already built mobile applications that allow smartphones to work as hotel room keys or Socialight which can be used to build a "virtual hotel concierge" service, among other things? What of the fact that multiple airlines already have their own mobile boarding pass applications? What of the universal remote apps like FLPR, Bobby, L5 and RedEye, to name just a few? And the list could go on and on.
Does Apple want to compete with these developers with its own native apps or does it just want license this technology to others building related services? Are these patents defensive maneuvers to block Google from providing services like these on its Android mobile operating system?
News like this is one of the reasons why so many in the technology industry are so vehemently against the idea of software patents. Foundry Group's managing director Brad Feld, for example, recently called the litigation surrounding patents "a massive tax on and retardant of innovation." Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady agreed, saying "it is not reasonable to expect that the current patent system, nor even one designed to improve or replace it, will ever be able to accurately determine what might be considered legitimately patentable from the overwhelming volume of innovations in software."
Philosophical arguments aside, given Apple's cryptic ways and its behavior when dealing with competition (see: Adobe, AdMob, Flurry Analytics), the idea of Apple venturing into its developers' playing field is one that could greatly affect the innovation in mobile applications for years to come.