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Apple Patents Hint at iPhone's Direction

Apple iPhone
Sleuthy Mac enthusiasts have unearthed new patents filed by Apple for future iPhones that show Apple is quickly evolving the touch-driven phone to be as voice-driven as possible -- while gaining some other interesting functions.

All told, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) filed a half-dozen patent applications this week. The move gives no hint of a timeline, although at least one of the functions described in the documents already appears in the iPhone 3G. Some could be used in iPod Touch or other non-iPhone devices as well.

The most unusual of the filings is one called "ID App," which can recognize objects in the iPhone user's surroundings. In an example cited in the filing, while mobile devices can take pictures of a piece of art in a gallery, they don't have the ability to identify the piece.

According to the patents, the ID App would recognize the artwork and artist, and could provide other information, such as history or backstory behind the work -- all downloaded to the phone. The artwork could be recognized by an image captured by the phone's camera, but also by data received by something like an RFID reader or infrared image capture device, two features not currently in the iPhone.

The ID App can also identify the location of the wearer, so once it determines that person to be in a particular city, it can provide them with restaurant information for just that city.

The second patent filing is for tracking outgoing voice mails. If you forward an e-mail to someone and they claim to have not received it, just look in your Sent Mail directory for a record of outgoing mail to see who's telling the truth.

However, when forwarding a voice mail to someone, no such "Sent Mail" mechanism exists to verify that the voice mail was forwarded at a certain time and place. So Apple is proposing a system that will essentially save a copy of a voice message and providing access to the "sent mail."

In a third filing, Apple notes that phones and media players have to be shipped empty. It offers to provide a system where users can pre-select media items and applications they want on their device at the time of purchase.

If a user wants to download a bunch of apps for their iPhone while it is being activated at the Apple Store or AT&T Wireless store, then the apps are auto populated onto the phone, or downloaded when the user first powers up the device to use it.

Two patents relate to text messaging. The first would allow parents to use parental controls to filter out objectionable content being transmitted to their child's device. Parents can lock out certain words from every reaching their children's iPhone and an alert can be sent to an authorized party that the phone received verboten text.

The second filing covers acknowledgement that a message was successfully received. If the message was not received, it could be resent without having to retype the whole thing.

Finally, Apple filed for a patent on a transparent overlay so song lyrics can be displayed on a device as music is playing. The iPhone 3G already has this feature.

Creative Strategies President Tim Bajarin isn't surprised at these developments. "That's always been Steve's [Jobs, Apple CEO] vision. His vision has always been that this was a handheld communications device that could evolve into something more," he told InternetNews.com.

"I think people kind of forget is that even though Apple is a hardware company, they are first and foremost a software company," he added. "This is very much in light with the kind of wizardry they will bring to the iPhone and any other devices they make."