Apple's iPhone GPS is a fabulously useful tool: Personally I've used it when lost in the city a few dozen times. But Apple's retaining a tight grip on both its own software and third party applications that use GPS functionality. The iPhone lacks turn-by-turn navigation for example, so as an in-car mapping system it's lagging behind the field. But a bunch of recent Apple patents may reveal the reason.
Over at Reghardware  they've examined the numerous Apple GPS-related patents--and they all look pretty interesting. Some are simple, such as the "route reference" app where a unit accepts a command to start recording a route being navigated, and does so until told to stop: essentially a fancy GPS position logger.
Then there's the "Integration of Map Services and User Applications in a Mobile Device" patent application, which sets out how a user's contacts could be displayed at their corresponding geographic location on a map, dynamically updated as the map refreshes. I imagine this to be a handy and fast-access way to navigate directly to a pal's place, especially as the patent also suggests the device could route you there.
There are three specific applications that reference traditional GPS turn-by-turn navigation, but with extra smarts. "Intelligent Route Guidance" and "Adaptive Route Guidance Based on Preferences" apps take you to a chosen destination based on criteria like "most scenic" and add-in information like your previous routes to that destination (I've been desperate for someone to add this to a GPS for ages.) Meanwhile "Disfavoured Route Progressions or Locations" lets you choose a route that avoids certain spots: useful perhaps if you know road work is being done on a specific route, or you want to avoid your ex.
There are also two apps that seem instantly fantastic: "Route Sharing and Location" lets you swap route info from one device to another, which seems so-so. But it also lets one device tell another its location, and then the second device routes itself there...perfect for connecting up two people in a new place. And lastly there's "Synchronizing Mobile and Vehicle Devices" which ties your handheld to your car's system, and could, for example, help you find your car in a huge parking lot.
This flurry of location-based patent activity is standard when a company is seeking to protect its ideas, even if they don't ultimately make it into products. But with so many ideas arriving, it seems Apple has been looking long and hard at navigation applications for its iPhone. Does that suggest that somewhere down the line there's an updated iPhone with GPS functionality or even the long-fabled Mac Tablet  on the way? Just possibly.