Sunday, September 19, 2021

Location Based Services Part 1: The iPhone 3G experience

September 15, 2008 by · 92 Comments 

iPhone 3G, now with more Bklyn! Image by jeanphony via Flickr

I recently bought an iPhone 3G to see how both the on-board GPS and the easy to use UI could help make location based services (LBS) more mainstream.

My first experience with useful LBS was with an application called Vindigo. Vindigo ran on my close to first-gen Palm Treo. It allowed me to identify where I was manually, and then provide me with nearby restaurants, movies, and other services that were updated daily. I used this service extensively when I was living in NYC, and thought it was the greatest thing since sliced cheese. I was therefore surprised, back in those days, how few people adopted these kinds of services.

I think there are many reasons why this may have been the case. Installation application hurdles, smartphone requirements, data bundles, etc.. suffice it to say, it was not the time for LBS.

Today, we’re in a different situation; perhaps even at a point of inflection for LBS. Many new phones are announced and rolled out with on-board GPS chips, some manufacturers have their own mapping solutions, and of course, there is Google’s map application which can be installed on most phones. In spite of this, we have not yet started seeing the ‘revolutionary’ potential that is LBS, for interacting with your friends and for deriving information from your mobile.

Throughout this series on LBS, I will focus on different ideas, but for the purposes of this post, I want to mostly focus on my experience with the iPhone 3G’s abilities.

The iPhone 3G locks onto a GPS signal pretty quickly due to its use of A-GPS (other phones have this too) and although the built in Maps application is nice, it doesn’t work offline like others, such as Nokia’s, which allows you to do so through an SD card with pre-loaded maps. In spite of that, however, the service is pretty speedy in rendering your location’s map, particularly on 3G, and will show you Google Maps in all their brilliance (no different from the first gen iPhone). You can bookmark locations and then ask for directions to or from them. However, you can’t SHARE locations with others! In order to do so, I had to install an App called Over Here from the App Store which allows me to do just that. In follow ups to this post, I will go into greater detail on what else I think could be improved with the built in Maps application.

Aside from the Maps application and the Over Here ‘patch’, I also use the following LBS apps:

Twinkle – Location aware micro-blogging where you can sort public posts by proximity to you.
Weather – Ok, cop out, but hey IT IS local.
GPS Tracker – Fun app to share your exact location with someone monitoring your progress on the web.
Mobile Fotos – A flickr sorter that can sort by proximity to your location as well.
Urban Spoon – The closest app I have to Vindigo. It is essentially restaurant listings by proximity.

As of this post, there are 105 Navigation apps in the app store. Within these 105 apps, however, there are a lot of sub-standard apps. I don’t want to single any one of them out, but frankly, location for location’s sake isn’t going to cut it in the mass market. However, I’m hopeful that the iPhone will provide a wider and more popular platform for developers to refine useful applications for LBS. I like to single Twinkle out as an application that seamlessly integrates location in a way that adds value to something (communication) that would otherwise occur without, but is made far ‘richer’ because of the location context. With Twinkle, for example, I can sort twitter posts by proximity to me (in kilometers) and I must admit, I have had some interesting things happen because of this, such as meeting new people, learning about breaking news, and discovering new locations.

There will always be a demand for yellow pages types apps that use location, but in my subsequent posts to this one, I want to cover how LBS can add value to other non-directory applications. I think the iPhone will probably be the place where these applications will debut, but I expect that within the next 2 years, we will start seeing mass adoption of geo-aware, sticky, and paradigm shifting apps. I’m pretty happy with how things are progressing, particulary on the iPhone, but I think there is still much more to come.

As a final general note, from my usage so far, I think the iPhone’s GPS chip on the 3G model has not added much value for me over my 2G iPhone without it (just using triangulation). This is particularly due to the lack of cached maps which would be helpful in remote areas with no reception. However, there are a few apps right now that are a little pricier (>$10), which seem to include cached maps, more on those when and if I decide to buy them. 

Update I forgot to add: There are applications for the 3G iPhone only that make it behave like a standalone GPS device and could make it more attractive to someone over the 2G version. These apps will give you speed, orientation, distance travelled, etc. However, I have discounted these as being true innovations and for mass consumption because a) You can’t run them in the background b) they will drain the battery life of your device very quickly, making a standalone GPS device more attractive, and c) the iphone wasn’t designed to be strapped onto anything (like a bike) to follow directions on your screen even while it rains.

All in all, the accuracy of the GPS chip is nice, but for most of the things I use it for, nearby is good enough. For things requiring more, I’m probably just going to use a separate ruggedized GPS device with a longer battery life.

PS. Ever since the iPhone’s firmware on the 2G was updated to 2.x.x, I had lost the ability to triangulate with EDGE only. WiFi needed to be turned on and near WiFi access points for it to work (but not associated to them). Since the update to 2.1, it seems that it is now working. For more on this go here:

iPhone version 2.0 bug: Triangulation broken

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