Sometimes, it simply requires to figure out what someone else may have missed and then go ahead and patent that. One example how such a patent looks like was just filed by Microsoft.
The patent application, filed on February 15 of 2011, but just released to the public by the USPTO last week, is entitled "Check-ins to commercial venues", which is not breathtaking by itself and may raise eyebrows why there is a need for a patent in the first place. Don't we have that already and why would we need a patent for the idea of someone letting others know that she or he has visited a business anyway?
In some way, there are much broader patents that encompass the check-in idea and their promotional value, for example patent #7,856,360 (filed in January 2007, granted in December 2010) entitled "System for providing a service to venues where people aggregate", or, if we go a bit further back, some of the foundations of our check-ins and why this technology is marketed can be found in patent #6,735,568 (filed in August 2000, granted in May 2004) entitled "Method and system for identifying people who are likely to have a successful relationship". If you spend some time with Google's prior art finder, you may be compelled that other than some groundbreaking check-in procedure may not be such a great patent in this space.
In that context, Microsoft filed application #20120209685, which squarely describes that the idea is an enhancement especially for the type of check-in that Foursquare pitches. However, the deficiency of Foursquare's model is that your check-in reveals your identity and you may not want to do that. Microsoft's approach prevents your identity from being revealed, but you can still take advantage of merchant offers by anonymously checking in, which may be an advantage, if you are going places you don't want anyone else to know. Suddenly, you can also check in to Lover's Lane.
From the patent:
"Although Foursquare allows a user to "privately" check-in to commercial venues without announcing the user's locations to his social graph, such private check-ins are not strictly anonymous. For example, a user may become the `mayor` of a particular location when he visits the location the most. But when the user becomes a "mayor" of that particular location, information about his location will be publicly available to all other Foursquare users, thereby destroying the user's anonymity."
"Another problem associated with check-ins via social networks such as Foursquare is that these third-party check-in applications provided by the social networks do not have access to the contextual data associated with the users. For example, the contextual data associated with a user may include information related to the user's location history, his past shopping history, his friends, and other relevant information associated with the user. The contextual data associated with a user may be used by merchants to provide targeted offers (e.g., coupons, loyalty programs, product sales, and other location-based marketplace offers) to the user when he checks-in with the merchants. Therefore, the more contextual data associated with a user, the more targeted offers may be provided by merchants to the user."
Perhaps it is just me, but patents for simple extensions to products some company may offer just don't feel right, especially if the filing party does not offer or does not plan to offer such a product. Imagine all the patents that could have been filed for improving Windows Vista. Of course, Microsoft is not to blame here. It's the system.