Phone.com recently received U.S. Patent No. 8,571,588, titled Method and apparatus for conferencing of text messages. The patented process, which essentially relates to text message conferencing, provides mobile phone users with a capability called Group SMS that shields the private numbers of their personal devices, exposing only their business phone numbers when they text or make business calls.
The patent explains the problem with the prior art:
Despite the huge popularity of SMS with the public, it has not been successful in a conferencing environment, particularly, one involving interactive communications among groups of users (few-to-few users) or one-to-few users in a controlled group. Although modern SMS clients, such as the iPhone®, can send a one-to-few message, the recipients do not have any indication that they need to respond to multiple parties. Therefore, there exists a substantial need in the art for effective conferencing in text messaging, such as SMS, communications.
The system and method disclosed implement text messaging conference among at least three users who communicate on different communication channels. A conference is initiated with a message from a first user, which is received on a communication channel, and commands the initiation of a text message conference. This message includes identities of a number of users asked to participate in the messaging conference. A second set of conferencing communication channels that are different from the first communication channel (used to initiate the conference) are then dedicated to each conference participant. The users then communicate messages over the new conferencing communication channels, with a message received over one conferencing communication channel being forwarded to the other users participating in the messaging conference via their respective communication channels.
Chief Technology Officer Alon Cohen, who is the first named inventor on the patent, explained that the new patented method would also allow replacement of the common two-step dial-in process to enter conference calls, with a simpler single-step dialing of a permanent phone number that can be stored in a conferee’s address book. A conferee’s acceptance of a conference call invitation on his or her smartphone would capture the required single call-in number and add it to the calendar in the mobile device so that a conference call can be dialed directly from the calendar.
On this point, the patent explains:
To set up the conference channel, a table of numbers is stored. For each intended participant, the bridge forms a unique identifier that includes preferably a combination of at least two numbers, one DID number from the pool of [direct-in-dial] DID numbers associated with the conference bridge, and the other number being the telephone number of the communications device of the participant. Each said identifier is thus comprised of at least two parts, and a set of identifiers is then logically grouped by the bridge as a single conference.
By utilizing the foregoing technique of assigning two part identifiers to each communications device, each communications device can participate in multiple conferences at the same time. That is, at a given point in time, the bridge might have two or more different identifiers associated with the same communications device. Each of the identifiers would be the same for the portion of the identifier that represents the telephone number of the communications device, but would be different for the bridge DID portion. This results in a situation where communications coming from the communications device but on different DID numbers into the bridge get associated with different conferences.
Thus, the invention disclosed in the ‘588 patent allows conference operators to maintain a small pool of numbers while enabling them to directly address millions of conferencing rooms without requiring the user to enter a separate room ID number. This reduction in the size of the pool of necessary numbers benefits end users as the reduction in operating cost translates to lower service costs, Cohen said.
The patent contains six independent claims, which cover either a method of operation or a system. The following independent claims are representative:
1. A method of establishing a conference comprising: receiving, at a bridge, an out of band and substantially instantaneous message initiated by a first user, said message including one or more user identities, said bridge including one or more incoming physical or logical communications channels; assigning a unique logical identifier to each user associated with said one or more user identities, and to said first user, said unique logical identifier including an actual phone number associated with said each user or said first user and a unique Direct inward Dial (DID) phone number from a pool of DID numbers associated with the bridge; forming a group of users from said unique logical identifiers, and transmitting subsequent substantially instantaneous out of band messages received from any user associated with said group to all or a subset of other such users associated with said group, said messages being transmitted out of band and substantially instantaneous.
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13. A system for providing a text message conference among at least three users who communicate on different first communication channels, the system comprising a combination of: a message receiver comprising a processor receiving a message initiated by a first user on one of the first communication channels seeking to initiate said text message conference, the message including identities of a plurality of additional users to participate in said text message conference, wherein the message receiver includes means grouping unique logical identifiers for said first user and said plurality of additional users, the unique logical identifiers including an actual phone number associated with said first user or said plurality of additional users and a unique Direct inward Dial (DID) phone number from a pool of DID numbers associated with a bridge; means reserving a conferencing communication channel to the text message conference which is not one of the first communication channels; means enabling said first user and said plurality of additional users to communicate text messages over the conferencing communication channel; and means forwarding a text message received over the conferencing communication channel from one of the users to the other users participating in the text message conference via their respective first communication channels.
Interestingly, the words “software” and “computer” never appear in the disclosure or any of the claims, although in order to be carried out in a commercial context, software running on some computer system would be essential. Perhaps the future for software protection is simply to ignore the presence of a computer and ignore the reality that to create a commercially useful embodiment, software will be required.