New Apple Patent Could Make iPhone an Enterprise Must

July, 2016

Because of BYOD, there are plenty of iPhones floating around the enterprise, even if the IT department doesn’t standardize on iOS as a mobile platform. On Apple’s side, the tech giant has preferred to sell to consumers rather than businesses, although its recent alliances with IBM and SAP may indicate a softening of that strategy.

But a new patent  may change that, even if unintentionally. The patent allows infrared signals sent to an iPhone to actually control the phone or send it data including pictures and text. Because the iPhone is foremost a consumer device, analysts are calling attention to the feature of the patent that allows the infrared signal to disable the phone’s camera. But all that attention is ignoring the fact that being able to send instructions and data to an iPhone turns the phone from a largely “pull” device into one where enterprises can “push” data to it more easily.  

Implications of the patent

Certainly, this isn’t the first technology that allows for signals to be sent to a phone. NFC, Bluetooth, and even QR codes have can send signals to phones. But for the most part, these are passive signals. They require both halves of the communication to participate, usually through having the user download an app and granting permissions.

Apple’s technology essentially overrides functions of the phone with no need for the user to participate. Essentially, the app allows the signal to “take over” functions of the phone, displaying data or executing certain functions. In Apple’s patent example, an iPhone user stands in front of a museum display. The signal pushes data about the display to the phone. It also pushes a signal to the phone disabling the camera. This is a different, and admittedly more frightening, interaction. No apps required. No permission required. If Apple were to incorporate this patent in a product, it would need to be careful to walk a fine line between phone holder rights, the rights of locations where the signal is coming from, security, and privacy.

But putting aside the obvious scary implications for this (governments shutting down phones at protests or ransomware designed to take over a phone), there are still a lot of good uses for this, both as a consumer tool and business tool. Apple is likely to find far more enterprises lining up to buy these infrared emitters than concert venues. Let’s face it, Apple doesn’t deal in products unless they have a massive scale. Even if they sold this product to every museum and concert hall in the world, it wouldn’t be worth their time. If Apple turns it into a product, they will see more potential in it than that. Describing the capabilities in a setting like a museum in the patent may be a partial smoke screen to hide its full potential.

Potential applications of the patent

The obvious first use is in enterprise and government security. Signals could be used to disable the camera (or other functions) on any phone not registered with an existing Mobile Device Management system. Factories, government facilities, and other sensitive locations could prevent illicit filming, and even set up “no phone” zones for especially sensitive areas.

Another enterprise use would be for disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity. One of the great weaknesses of most DR plans is that they are rarely kept up-to-date. As people leave the company or change responsibilities, plans quickly become out of date. Non-essential personnel are often never briefed on the plan at all. One way to compensate for that would be, during an incident, to push information to all phones within the area that includes information on the DR plan. Because the data could be more complicated or visual than a text, and it can be more location-aware, this would be better than SMS which many teams currently use.

Other potential enterprise uses could include training, on-boarding, and essential communications, as the technology could be used to push data and messages to employees in specific locations.

On the customer-facing side, aggressive retailers could push information to customers including discounts, product information, and customer reviews without the need for the customer to download a store app. Admittedly, this could be perceived as an intrusion, at least at first, and visualizing a world where our phone is constantly inundated with pushed information from hundreds of desperate retailers sounds like a sci-fi nightmare.

The exact form and shape of these communications will likely take time to work out. As with most technologies where a consumer device clashes with enterprise uses, there is always a period of boundary testing and socialization. Apple will need to tread carefully in turning it into a product. But the potential is there to turn this into a ubiquitous technology that changes the way enterprises themselves approach the iPhone, not just a cute “no pictures please” app for your local museum or concert venue.