Apple fans who were expecting an iPhone instant-messaging client based on AOL's popular software could be in for a surprise. Apple has applied for a patent on a chat feature.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published an application entitled Portable Electronic Device for Instant Messaging on March 6. That's the same day Apple offered details on its software development kit for the iPhone.
Last month, Apple mentioned AOL's test version of the first "official" native Web chat for the popular iPhone. But that could be a temporary solution. The patent was filed in August 2007.
The Heart of the Patent
The application reads, "The GUI has a set of messages exchanged between a user of the device and another person. The set of messages (is) displayed in a chronological order. In response to detecting a scrolling gesture comprising a substantially vertical movement of a user contact with the touch-screen display, the display of messages (is) scrolled in accordance with a direction of the scrolling gesture."
Of course, the iPhone already has SMS messaging. But an Apple-branded chat feature would offer Apple multiple benefits, so Ilan Barzilay, a member of the Electrical and Computer Technologies Practice Group at Wolf Greenfield in Boston, was not surprised to learn about the patent.
"Texting is a huge part of cell-phone service, so if Apple could build an IM client into its iPhone that's just another feature, that would be very appealing to consumers," Barzilay said. "Apple could take that power out of the hands of the cell-phone companies so consumers have one less thing to worry about on their cell-phone bill."
Keeping Apple in Control
If Apple releases its own chat feature, the company would also have more control over the modifications consumers make to the software. Apple has taken a relatively proprietary approach until now, only recently announcing a software developer's kit that could open up the platform to new third-party applications.
"Apple having its own IM client, it could control the look and feel of the interaction, which is very important to Apple. The company could also control the back end such that it could make it a little more flexible with various networks depending on what the iPhone is working on," Barzilay said. "It could control how the IM client interacts with the operating system on the iPhone as well as all the other software out there."
Could it Just Be a Rumor?
Barzilay said one of Apple's trademarks is to control the user experience, and this move follows that trend. There is still some question about whether Apple's patent reveals its intentions or just leaves the door open. Apple could not immediately be reached for comment.
However, Barzilay said, if Apple does develop a proprietary IM client, a patent could prevent other developers from tweaking the software or developing an IM system similar to Apple's.
"Apple and many other companies are looking for their own ways of doing things," Barzilay said. "If Apple can find one that works well on its iPhone platform and has features not available elsewhere, it's just another incentive for customers to go to them."