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The US Patent & Trademark Office recently published a flurry of Apple patents related to location-based services.

Some describe unique innovations, while others seem to stretch the USPTO's definition of a utility patent: the invention or discovery of a "new, useful, and nonobvious process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof."

Taken as a whole, however, they underline Apple's ongoing efforts to enhance location services in its mobile devices - especially the iPhone and iPod touch, but also possibly the long-anticipated but still elusive tablet Mac.

One of the more straightforward applications, entitled simply "Route Reference," describes a process in which a user first tells the mobile device that he or she is beginning a trip. The device then tracks the route of the trip until the user tells it to stop, at which point the device saves that route for later reference.

Other implementations described in the same application include the device generating one or more different possible routes between two or more user-designated locations, then allowing the user to edit and save those routes.

Another application, with the verbose title of "Integration of Map Services and User Applications in a Mobile Device," describes the ability of a mobile device to link its contact database with its location, display the location of those contacts on a map, and update the contacts on that map as the device's location changes.

In addition to merely displaying contact location, the mobile device could also display full contact information, allow a user to call, email, send SMS messages to a contact, or display map routes to selected contacts - a handy traveling-salesman enabler.

A related application, "Location-Based Services," builds upon this application interaction by having a mobile device suggest locations or routes based upon how applications or capabilities of the device are being used. For example, if you take a photo with your device's integrated camera, the device could then display nearby businesses that would be more than happy to provide you with an 8-by-10 glossy of the image you just shot.

While these three applications describe services that are presumably enabled by GPS-supplied information, a third application, entitled "Adaptive Mobile Device Navigation," describes a method by which a user's changing location is instead "estimated" from a chosen starting point on a map through such methods as comparing motion-sensor data with map-based information. The application describes the motion sensor as being "one or a combination of an accelerometer, a compass, and/or a gyroscope."

Users would be prompted to verify their position, in one implementation by being prompted with images from "a database of photographs" that the device believes to correspond to that location.

Three applications would allow a user to override a navigation system's suggested routes. Both "Intelligent Route Guidance" and "Adaptive Route Guidance Based on Preferences" would base their suggested routes not simply on pre-wired considerations such as "quickest" or "most scenic," but also on a user's stated preferences, previous routes, or - in the case of the first of the two - real-time traffic conditions.

The third application of this type, "Disfavored Route Progressions or Locations," looks at preferences from the opposite direction, allowing a user to tell a navigation system where not to route a trip. After all, you can't expect Google Maps to know that there have been a spate of carjackings at a particular intersection in your town.

Finally, two applications describe the interaction of separate location-aware devices. The first, "Route Sharing and Location," describes the ability of one mobile device to receive location or route info from another device. The sending device could then plot where the receiving device is located then plot a route to it, including calculating the travel time needed to reach it.

Although the application doesn't specifically mention it, we assume that the route information could be updated when either device moves. "Hide and seek" goes digital.

The second device-interaction application, "Synchronizing Mobile and Vehicle Devices," describes - you guessed it - the interaction of a mobile device with a car's navigation system. Not only would this interaction allow the mobile device access to information stored in the car-nav's memory, but it would also make it a whole lot easier to find your car in the vast expanse of a Walmart parking lot - just ask your iPhone where it is.

As is true with any set of patent applications, some of these location-based ones may find their way into future products, some may not. It's certain, however, that the future is mobile, and Apple is getting ready for it.

And while it may seem that news of a new Apple patent appears every other day, the company's output is paltry compared with patent-producing powerhouses such as IBM and Samsung. However, with 60 patent applications already published this year Cupertino appears to be playing catch-up. ®

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