Apple is seeking to patent a system that would make it possible for a person to use a wireless gadget to place an order at a cafe or fast-food restaurant and pickup the order without waiting in line.
If the "wireless communication system" described in U.S. Patent Application No. 20070291710 becomes a product, then it would transform Apple into more than a computer and iPod maker and online seller of music and video. Instead, Apple would also become a middleman between restaurants, cafes, and possibly other merchants and their customers.
Apple as a matter of policy refuses to comment on future products, but its patent applications can provide a hint as to where the company is at least thinking about heading. In the latest filing, Apple is apparently looking at going beyond its recent deal with Starbucks, which enables coffee drinkers to download music and video to their iPhones while enjoying a latte.
The latest application, filed Dec. 20, described a system in which a person approaching a cafe, fast-food, or take-out restaurant could place an order that would be received by an in-store computer. The person's order would be treated as if the customer was standing in line, which means he would be served before people placing orders after the remote order arrived.
The remote customer would receive a confirmation that the order was received and the approximate time it would be ready for pickup. The notification could be displayed as text or an image on the device's screen, or it could come via an audible message played through a device's speaker or earphones.
Orders could be placed through a media player, wireless PDA, or cell phone. The obvious benefit to customers would be in avoiding the wait in line to order their favorite coffee drinks or hamburgers.
But the system would also have benefits to restaurant owners beyond providing better service. Each customer using the system would get a unique identifier for tracking the establishments they visited and what they bought. The information would be stored in the devices and synchronized with the computers of participating merchants.
The patent doesn't address security or privacy issues, nor does it give specifics on the kinds of establishments Apple would be targeting with the system, beyond a reference to picking up coffee. Such an order-processing system could be used in stores beyond restaurants.
Apple made its first move into cafes in September when it announced a deal with Starbucks, which agreed to offer an iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. Starbucks plans to offer the service through its paid T-Mobile Wi-Fi network in more than 1,150 stores in the United States by March, with additional U.S. locations to follow.