Apple has patented software that will automatically log the visits of iPhone users to restaurants, stores and business and then use the number of visits by Jesus-mobe owners as an indication of how good/popular/worthy-of-a-high-search-ranking that business is.
We've known Apple logged our location before, but this is the first time we've seen software that connects you to the businesses you patronise, rather than just the GPS co-ordinates. Finally it seems to be a use for the vast amounts of detailed info Apple collects about where we go.
The patent – now spotted by AppleInsider – was filed by Apple engineers Jaron Waldman and Chad Richard on 3 May 2010 and published on 9 August this year. Where location services like Foursquare or Facebook Places require users to fire up an app and hit a check-in button to log their location, all the new Apple system needs to log your visit to Starbucks is for you to be there for a certain amount of time. You won't need your maps apps open or even to kick the phone out of sleep mode for your visit to be logged. Sinister.
But this is no Foursquare or share-your-favourite-frappuchino-joint-with-friends venture. This is a way for Apple to improve its mobile search facility by harvesting data from its users. Apple will use the popularity of venues with iPhone users as a way to rank them in search results. The information will be anonymous and you can opt out of the system altogether.
Apple's patent lays out the limitations of the current ways we have of organising location search:
"Search results ordered by proximity do not account for quality of the search result relative to the query. Search results ordered by average-user-ranking are based upon opinions of relatively few people whom take the time to review the location. Search results that are ordered based on advertising dollars also do not take into account quality or desirability and sometimes broaden the criteria for relevance beyond a desirable measure."
Apple explains that it will ensure anonymity by assigning users a unique ID number. The server which tracks and logs your location will only know the ID number and not your identity. Though we imagine it wouldn't be impossible to connect the two.
"Data can be anonymously recorded and tracked for individual devices by assigning the device a unique identifier that is separate from any user information. One way to do this is to alert the handheld communication device of its unique ID, and the handheld communication device can report data along with its unique ID. In this way, the server will only be tracking the movements of an anonymous user based on an ID."
Note that Apple have made sure they are the only ones authorised to use the users' unique IDs - this isn't some open feature that app developers will be able to use. This will be a treasure trove of user behaviour information that will accumulate behind Apple's closed doors.
It seems like an intelligent way to improve search, but a couple of questions occur – what if Apple decides to sell this information off? Chunked up and packaged this could be valuable. What if the police want to know something: will Apple be able to find and track the location of particular users? ®