Apple iGroups: Smart Networking or Dead on Arrival?

Apple takes a turn in the social network scene

Address Book — The One True “Killer App”?

We may leave our carrier behind when we upgrade our mobile phone, but rarely do we want to leave our address book behind.

In an age where we call people by voice-dial or speed-dial, our address books are central to our mobile phone experience.

And mobile communication is much more than telephony — there is email, texting, mobile browsing from bookmarks, Facebook and beyond — most of this data is found in our address books in one form or another.

Of course the “address book” is important beyond just smartphones — just listen to a conversation at the store when someone purchases a new device. Invariably the consumer is concerned that their contacts get “transferred” over to the new phone.

The address book contains a list of people that are (presumably) of some importance or value to us, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But how do we get names into the address book?

The answer to this question has changed over time as technology has matured — along with our usage patterns and increasing disdain for privacy.

Personally, I think that Palm WebOS Synergy has some of the best address book-to-social networking integration available today — integration so tight that it blurs the lines between local and network contacts. If you are interested in taking your social scene with you, the WebOS based devices offer some compelling functionality between this tight integration, multi-tasking OS and of course a real, physical keyboard that is good for messaging your friends. The devices have recently landed at Verizon and are coming to AT&T. All good signs for Palm fans, however, if sales don’t pick up, WebOS might be sitting next to the BetaMax in the “better mousetrap” museum.

Android users enjoy solid integration with Google’s GMail service and as 2.X becomes more generally available across carriers look for Android solutions to continually improve.

And of course mobile corporate users often tie directly into their Microsoft Exchange environment for email, contacts and calendar collaboration — a solution that meets the needs of many professionals.

But what about the people who are not yet in your address book — how do we get them in there? Not to be outdone by Google or Palm, Apple is not sitting around idling away their days playing with their iPads and debating the merits of Flash-in-Safari. So, what could compete with Android/GMail or the Synergy of Palm? Apple is looking to up the ante beyond anywhere syncing and allowing for “anywhere linking”.

Apple’s iGroup Initiative

Apple recently submitted a patent application for a social networking application called iGroups.

To be fair, this is really more than an application, but rather a social networking ecosystem. Oh boy, do we really need another one?

The basic idea is for users who are in close proximity to one another — geographically speaking, to be able to connect in a somewhat ad-hoc manner.

Once a group of users are “aware” of one another, a series of hand-shaking or token-passing takes place, enabling members of this newly formed network to communicate in a private and secure manner.

The initial connection may take place via a Personal Area Technology (PAN) such as Bluetooth, but then continues over the backbone of a wireless network (WiFi or 3G).

Apple’s documents also outline a “trusted network service” which individuals participating in the “network” would rely upon to facilitate and secure communications between participants. Specifically, this probably means Apple’s Mobile Me.

One of the keys to the success of the big social networks (FB, Twitter, LinkedIn) is that the barriers to entry are extremely low. If Apple’s iGroups requires a MobileMe subscription they may have a tough time gaining traction.

Of course, connecting to people you don’t know out in the “wild” is interesting, if not raising more questions than it answers as it breaks from the traditional ideas of online social networking.

Social networking is often thought of in terms of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Facebook and Twitter are largely for passing the precious time we have here on earth talking about the big and little (never mind stupid) things we’re doing. And LinkedIn is often misused as an online resume tool helping you land your next job. Of course, if you spent less time with your social network and more time doing your job, you might keep the job you’ve got! But I digress, sorry.

So, why would you be interested in participating in an “iGroup”?

Stated another way, why would you want to connect with people near by via your mobile device and not just walk over to someone and say hello?

First, let’s dispense with the jokes about the boy who was too shy to talk to the girl in class, but feels free to send her a text message. And we’ll also ignore the non-trivial questions of whether or not we want uninvited connections from people we don’t know. Read “axe murderer”. Let’s just focus on a couple of legitimate reasons to “connect”.

One scenario is a small group of people attending an event together who want to stay connected in a collaborative fashion. Perhaps it is a trade-show and the team “divides and conquers” the show floor, but still wants to stay in touch during the show, keeping one another up to speed on their findings.

Or perhaps you and a bunch of friends score some tickets to the Final Four via Stubhub.com but didn’t manage to get seats near one another. It would be fun to have your own virtual “party line” where you can communicate amongst yourselves.

The other model is that you are in a public place and interested in meeting up with new people who have similar interests — so you pull out your iPhone and try to make some “friends”. OK, so I say you could already use foursquare (or other similar apps) and not be beholden to Apple for such a privilege. Or you can subscribe to a Twitter tag and communicate with the twitter-verse. Sure, you may lose your initial geo-positioning advantage of filtering out people who are not nearby, but hey, just open your mouth and speak!

Do these scenarios call for anything beyond the aready existing capabilities of email and text messaging? Arguably not. And we already know how to send a text message. There is no Bluetooth required. No tokens. And, hopefully, no axe-murderers.

So far, I’m not buying it…

What About the Address Book?

Leaning back into the Address Book idea and the folks who joined you at the Final Four — all of these people would presumably already be in your address book. If so, what value does iGroups bring that we don’t already have? And is it worth the hassle never mind the potential subscription to yet another monthly fee! Where is the value?

What if you could use this technology to let people in your address book know that you are at the event? Again, this can already be done with apps like foursquare — or even just a status update in Twitter would be good enough. Do we really need to go through all of the trouble of discovering with BlueTooth, token exchange, and virtual private network communications?

And Apple is not particularly novel here. There are a number of applications that already leverage (or attempt to) the address book, social networks, micro-blogging, etc. In addition to some of the more popular applications, there are some sleepers trying to gain traction. Mobow comes to mind as some cool technology and innovative ideas looking for a home.

On the other hand, if you really desire some secure communications, this iGroups thing could be of value. In fact, it is rumored that the Supreme Court justices are considering using some kind of tool during future State of the Union addresses in the event they need to collaborate on an impromptu response to the President. It may have come in handy this past January.

Perhaps I am missing something, but I just don’t see the value here.

To be fair, I am perhaps a bit jaded by Apple’s business style as much as I am not interested in this offering of theirs. They know how to market, so we shouldn’t just ignore this, even if it does seem like an expensive and locked-in duplication of existing capabilities. Imagine, a single provider for your hardware, your software, and even your friends. I think Apple may have missed their calling — they should have gotten into the healthcare debate!

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