Nov. 2, 2012 at 2:24 PM ET
Will thieves be less likely to snatch an iPhone if they know it will detect its own theft instantly and sound an alarm? Apple hopes so, and has filed a patent describing a system that does just that — a year after Google did.
The theft detection would work by monitoring a device's accelerometer, the component that detects movement. Any irregular movement is compared to a "frequency profile" associated with theft, and if it matches, the device emits an alarm.
For example, if the accelerometer detects the usual up-down jostle of walking and the occasional lift to check a message, but then all of a sudden the phone is flying off sideways in a pattern characteristic of a run, that's a possible theft scenario for the system.
On the other hand, it wouldn't be able to differentiate between you and a thief picking it up from a table and putting it in your pocket; there's simply nothing suspicious about that movement.
Existing phones probably couldn't be upgraded to receive this feature, since it requires some kind of discrete "theft detection circuitry" not known to exist in current devices. And as the patent was only applied for a few months ago, it seems unlikely that such hardware would ship any time soon; indeed, it may be totally theoretical right now.
Interestingly, Google filed a very similar patent in September 2011, which was granted in July. It pertains specifically to the company's "wearable computers," such as Google Glass, and monitors for "unnatural movement" to lock the device down anything out of the ordinary is detected.
Whether the two patents are different enough for both to be granted is a matter for the Patent Office to decide. But either way, it might be nice to know that your device is looking out for itself — as long as it doesn't start locking itself down or blaring an alarm whenever you trip or sprint to catch a bus.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.