Apple Explores Wireless Commerce, Microsoft-Like DRM

Apple is seeking patents around its two of its recent designs — the first concerning the nascent mobile transaction space, while the second involves the always-controversial Digital Rights Management (DRM) arena.

The company earlier this year filed for a patent on technology first announced in September, in connection with the launch of its iPod Touch and a partnership with coffee chain colossus Starbucks.

The technology enables users to purchase music they hear playing in a Starbucks outlet, using their iPod Touch’s Wi-Fi connection.

Separately, Apple filed an unrelated patent application covering digital rights management technology. The feature bears a striking resemblance to Microsoft’s much-maligned Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) program, which in essence checks that an application is running on an authorized platform.

The first — and likely less controversial — patent borrows on technology behind the paid downloading of songs. When a user enters a properly outfitted Starbucks, their Touch tells them what song is currently playing. If the iPod owner likes the song, they could then press a button to make a purchase.

Apple’s patent application refers to this technology simply as “Wireless communications system“. The company filed for the patent in July, well before the release of the Touch, but updated the proposed patent last week.

The filing suggests Apple is looking to expand the use of the technology beyond simply buying a song at Starbucks. The revised filing describes a system for placing orders electronically, via a wireless device, and then picking up the ordered product in-store.

The customer would receive a confirmation that the order had been received on their device, as well as a notification when they could pick up their merchandise, according to the patent filing. The notification could be displayed as text or an image or be an audio message, such as a voice message, that plays on speakers or earphones.

Apple is closed for the holidays and spokespeople were unavailable for comment by press time.

However its system is rolled out, it will take time — judging from the protracted deployment of Apple’s work with Starbucks. That deal, although limited simply to MP3s, is not expected to be fully available nationwide until late next year.

Of course, it’s also not clear whether Apple will ultimately take advantage of the patent in any form, at all.

Windows-esque DRM for the Mac?

It’s also not certain how Apple intends to make use of its DRM patent filing, No. 20070288886, titled “Run-Time Code Injection To Perform Checks.”

That filing describes a system that enables an application developer to add code into their app’s runtime instruction stream that would restrict execution to specific hardware platforms.

“An authorizing entity (e.g., an application owner or platform manufacturer) authorizes one or more applications to execute on a given hardware platform,” the patent filing reads. “Later, during application run-time, code is injected that performs periodic checks … to determine if the application continues to run on the previously authorized hardware platform.”

According to the document, if one of these periodic checks fails, “at least part of the application’s execution string is terminated — effectively rendering the application non-usable.”

The filing also said that the verification check is “transparent to the user and difficult to circumvent.”

A similar plan — tying an application to specific hardware and regularly checking that the software is running on authorized hardware — has been at the crux of Microsoft’s efforts to stamp out piracy in a number of its own products.

The company’s WGA, the technology behind its DRM initiatives, has been applied to products including Windows XP, Windows Vista and Office 2003 and later. It’s also long been the focus of controversy for its intrusiveness and false positives.

Ironically, Microsoft of late has seemed to be distancing itself from such technology. The company backed off on some of the more aggressive uses of WGA last year, and this year further relented with IE 7.

Earlier this month, Microsoft also said it planned to end one of the most controversial features of Windows Vista’s WGA implementation — its so-called “kill switch.” That feature had disabled features in Vista copies that failed to pass Microsoft’s verification process.

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