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Thursday, August 30, 2012, 02:20 am PT (05:20 am ET)

Apple looks to automate email sorting with intelligent messaging system

A patent filing published on Thursday reveals Apple's work on a priority-based messaging system that automatically sorts incoming messages according to a number of customizable variables.

Apple's application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for "Addressee based message prioritization" describes a system that automatically sorts incoming email, texts or other digital messaging mediums according to a customizable rule set determined by how a sender addresses the recipient.

As the worldwide smartphone adoption rate rises, so too does the number of electronic messages being sent and received by the common consumer, with emails, texts and chats funneled onto one small-screened device. Apple's invention is intended to mitigate the problems associated with displaying these messages from family, friends and colleagues by offering an intelligent priority-based sorting method that can easily be customized to suit a user's needs.

While similar sorting methods exist in full-fledged desktop and internet clients, an intuitive solution has yet to make its way to portable devices, a market arguably in need of such a system. Apple's own OS X email client features "Smart Folders" and "VIPs" to parse out messages, but such a comprehensive system is somewhat involved and requires multiple steps to set up.

The proposed priority-based method, on the other hand, is almost entirely based on the addressee, with other data such as sender information factored in to offer a more complete user experience. For example, a message can be tagged depending on how the sender addresses their email. If an addressee's name is in the "To" field, it might get priority over an identical message that is carbon copied (CC) or blind carbon copied (BCC). Also taken into account is whether the addressee is part of a mailing group, which would result in a different prioritization than if they were the lone recipient.

Alternately, the user can prioritize messages based on the sender. For example, "the recipient user may specify that messages received from 'boss@work.com' should be adjusted upward one or more priority levels." The sender can be identified by name, email address or other means.

Setting Priority

Setting messaging priorities. | Source: USPTO


A user can customize the levels with which the system assigns priority by specifying a message hierarchy, or which type of addressing technique takes precedent over another. The method calls for a numbered hierarchy, such as 1 through 10 with 10 being the lowest priority, to easily flag the respective importance of a message. An email from work could be assigned a "1" while a mass advertisement would receive a "10."

Customizing the prioritization further, the patent explains that a combination of addressee and sender data fields can be used to properly assign a hierarchical value.

Once a message has been assigned a designated priority, it is then tagged by "highlighting, coloring, formatting, grouping and/or sorting" as specified by the user.

From the patent application's description:
For example, allowing the recipient-user to specify how messages should be presented to the recipient user may allow the recipient-user to quickly and easily identify messages that require immediate attention and response while deferring less urgent messages to a later time.

Sorting

Sorting based on message priority. | Source: USPTO


Thursday's patent filing appears to be a perfect fit for devices where screen size is limited, such as the iPhone and its 3.5-inch display, though the company has made no announcements regarding substantial changes to its iOS email client.

Apple is expected to be introducing the sixth-generation iPhone, widely rumored to be packing a larger 4-inch display, on Sept. 12 alongside iOS 6.