iGroups: Apple’s Welcome to the Social

An interesting patent of Apple’s (s aapl) relating to a social networking app surfaced recently. Dubbed iGroups, the app aims to solve the pitfalls of traditional social networks, like Facebook, that require users be a member before being able to participate. Instead, iGroups creates a virtual social network based on proximity.

To set the scene, imagine a casual weekend enjoying drinks at a bar. Your device would be able to detect others nearby and allow for easy communication by the tools already built into your device: SMS, email or by phone. If you’re a Mac user, you could loosely term this as Bonjour for your iPhone.

A Network Of Proximity

The idea of a network based on proximity is intriguing considering the technology built into mobile devices that can help facilitate this. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, for instance, both allow for discovering new devices that are within range. But the problem arises when a user leaves. If they are out of range, they are excluded from the network.

iGroups attempts to solve this issue when it first detects other users. At this point, the devices exchange a token (or handshake, if you will). These tokens are tagged. If there happens to be a trusted source at this venue, for example, like a wireless access point or perhaps a website setup for this purpose, devices can exchange tokens with it. Before this gets too technical, let’s agree to call the trusted source “Wilma.”

This accomplishes two important things. The first is that Wilma can match or correlate tokens to determine groups and their members. When my device approaches and exchanges tokens, Wilma now knows what group I’m part of and similarly, I’ll know other group members that have checked in with Wilma. This process allows the network to grow by allowing its users to infer other users through this daisy chain process. Further, tokens can be exchanged through a variety of mechanisms: Wi-Fi if available, Bluetooth if desired or even 3G. By supporting all of these, it becomes much easier to visualize a realistic image of the network and prevents the network from being stifled because users are not exchanging tokens by just one method that not all devices may support.

The second important goal that this serves is solving the issue of users leaving range and thus losing the whole social networking aspect. If a user interacts with Wilma either at the event or afterwards (through something similar to MobileMe, perhaps), the user can see the entire group. Even if they are just uploading exchanged between Fred and their self, the inferring process described earlier will allow the rest of the network to be recreated. As Fred moves on and continues to exchange tokens, even after our user has left, they are still connected to the same event and will appear as part of the group. Mac users? Think of this as being similar to Smart Folders. The group “knows” who its members are by this process of exchanging tokens, even if not all of the users are present at the same time.

It’s worthwhile to mention that any sort of implementation of such a technology would of course be completely optional and protect the privacy of users if they did not wish to participate. Further, the patent sheds light on the fact that the tokens themselves do not contain information that would identify any particular user or device. Merely the tokens act as a way to tag an association with a specific group.

Still, the idea of creating these virtual social networks on the iPhone is appealing. In some regards, there are applications on the market that attempt to deliver similar functionality, like Loopt. However, as mentioned earlier, these solutions still require users to have an account with them which can be problematic if you meet someone and want to exchange information but they are not a member of Facebook or LinkedIn. Instead of waiting for them to sign up and register a profile, iGroups solves the whole problem faster.

This definitely isn’t Apple’s first foray into patents on social interactions, but none of them have seen the light of day. With rumors of iPhone 4.0 around the corner, however, perhaps there is a substantial social component waiting to be unveiled. What do you think about the potential of iGroups?