Saturday, July 21, 2007

Apple patenting Zune-like sharing, wireless buying

Apple may be ready to not only bring wireless file sharing to the iPhone and iPod but could affect Microsoft's Zune as well, according to the details of a newly publicized patent. The filing would allow fully mobile devices such as cellphones and MP3 players to automatically discover each other on a local network, similar to the way the Zune can recognize nearby devices on its Wi-Fi connection; also as with the Microsoft jukebox, owners would be able to "push" media and other files to other devices. But the patent's implementation would also let a device make such requests, Apple says, allowing one handheld to pick files for download in a way the Zune currently forbids. A wireless sync method could automate these requests simply by coming near the right device.

One version of Apple's technique would also use a central pool of information rather than a direct transfer. Devices could grab content from a remote server as part of the mobile-to-mobile link, and could accomplish the same through a local server or a nearby computer that hosts the content itself. Users could even create a random or semi-random effect through this method by telling the device or server on the opposite end to randomly load the device with content, similar to the way the iPod shuffle's AutoFill creates a new mix of songs through USB.

Importantly, this wireless request would also include purchases -- addressing the common request that Apple's handhelds, particularly the iPhone, be able to purchase media themselves. In cases where data is bought, a future Apple device could either earmark tracks for later download, similar to the way the Zune can flag shared songs, or else download the track directly and sync the resulting content later with a computer or another portable.

While it's currently unclear as to whether or not the patent would directly hurt Microsoft's ability to implement enhanced Wi-Fi, having been originally filed less than three months before the Zune's mid-November launch, the technology described inside explicitly greenlights not just device-to-device media library transfers and iTunes Store interaction but also general file transfers that may be useful for phones, such as contacts and user profiles.

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