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Submitted in early January, the newly published patent application notes that almost all web browsers can only keep track of previously visited websites in chronological order. This might be useful in cases where the site visitor has browsed only a few layers deep, Apple says, but the interface quickly falls apart in more complex situations.
"Users can visit a large number of web pages, which are confusing to view in a chronological order," the patent reads. "And the forward and back buttons are an inefficient and cumbersome way to navigate through multiple web pages."
Instead, the proposed system would automatically sort pages by certain easily identifiable criteria. A user searching for car buying advice could see previously visited automotive sites organized together, for example. A browser could also organize sites by their popularity with the user, the frequency of visits, or even the nature of the visit, such as an e-commerce sale or instances where a download was launched.
While Apple has already tried to address the problem of rapid backtracking with Safari's SnapBack feature, which jumps to the top level of a website, the patent's new method would potentially solve the issues associated with needing to jump from site to site or create separate bookmark sets for different users. A husband and wife could see entirely different categories through a single, identical bookmark icon.
It could also work well outside of the web browsing environment, Apple adds. Since elements can be represented by images as well as text, the technique could apply equally to navigating a file system, a media player interface, or a photo manager.
Some elements of the patent appear to have already found their way into existing or upcoming Apple software, such as iPhoto 8's automatic grouping of photos into events and the Stacks feature that can automatically group downloads and other files together into a single on-screen icon. A program that merges most or all of the features has yet to surface.