The patent -- RELEVANCY RANKING FOR MAP-RELATED SEARCH--was filed by Apple in May 2010 and published in August this year. The location service will log iPhone users visits to venues like shops and restaurants based on the user's time spent there. iPhone users won't need an app to check-in.
This is the opposite of location services like Foursquare or Facebook where users are required to open an app and click the check-in button to log their location. Apple wants to improve its mobile search service by harvesting data from its users. Apple will use the popularity of venues with iPhone users as a way to rank them in search results. The information will be anonymous and you can opt out of the system altogether.
Apple's patent lays out the limitations of the current ways we have of organising location search: "Search results ordered by proximity do not account for quality of the search result relative to the query. Search results ordered by average-user-ranking are based upon opinions of relatively few people whom take the time to review the location. Search results that are ordered based on advertising dollars also do not take into account quality or desirability and sometimes broaden the criteria for relevance beyond a desirable measure."
Apple explain that they will ensure anonymity by assigning users a unique ID number. The server which tracks and logs your location will only know the ID number and not your identity. "Data can be anonymously recorded and tracked for individual devices by assigning the device a unique identifier that is separate from any user information. One way to do this is to alert the handheld communication device of its unique ID, and the handheld communication device can report data along with its unique ID. In this way, the server will only be tracking the movements of an anonymous user based on an ID."
Note that Apple have made sure they are the only ones authorized to use the users' unique IDs - this isn't some open feature that app developers will be able to use. This will be a treasure trove of user behavior information that will accumulate behind Apple's closed doors. Apple can package this info into "heat maps" and monetize it, in addition to improving the user experience.
It seems like an intelligent way to improve search, but isn't one piece of technology missing here? A more accurate indoor micro location? There can be two venues next to each other; how will Apple determine which venue the user is in without a more accurate location technology? Is Apple planning on using MEMS to improve the location precision of the existing GPS and Wi-Fi location technology?