Since mobile phones began to move beyond actual voice conversation, there's always been some killer feature that allowed mobile phone manufacturers to keep us buying their new models. Early this decade it was SMS, then picture messaging with simple cameras. Before we knew it there was a megapixel race with the cameras themselves, replicating in fast motion the megapixel race of actual digital cameras only a few years before. Just recently, music playing has been the latest addition to the mobile phone feature set and judging from the success of Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones, it looks like everyone likes the idea too.
So what's next? Some say mobile TV is the next hot thing, but in Australia it's still a fair way away. However, Nokia is tipping GPS to be another feature that we supposedly won't be able to resist having in our mobiles.
GPS - A definition and applications
You've probably heard the acronym before and may have even had something to do with the technology, but what is it? GPS standards for Global Positioning System. It consists of nearly 30 satellites that orbit the earth and transmit data to ground-based receivers that allow them to pinpoint their own location. The data tells a receiver where the satellites themselves are located, and the receiver works out its own position by comparing three to five different satellites' locations in relation to each other.
The GPS network was originally built by the United States Department of Defense, with the first of 24 satellites launched in 1978. The system was originally built for military use, but the companies that built it pressured the US government into allowing everyone to use the network, which they did. The network went live in 1993 with the launch of the 24th satellite.
GPS receivers take a number of shapes and sizes. The one that is probably most typically encountered today is the satellite navigation system found in luxury cars. Such a device use GPS satellites to work out where it is and then display its location against map data, which is stored on a DVD or hard disk. Advanced satellite navigation systems will store map data for one or more countries, along with points of interest such as restaurants, parking spaces, shopping centres and refuelling stations. They'll also guide you to an input destination using voice guidance, so you don't ever have to take your eyes off the road (and look at a map) to get somewhere.
Other applications include navigation for aircraft and ships, accurate time synchronisation, surveying, weather prediction and even a treasure hunting game called Geocaching.
Implementing GPS into mobile phones
While the idea of implementing GPS hardware into mobile phones is not a new one, the concept isn't without its barriers. The GPS system requires the receiver to have a clear line-of-sight to GPS satellites to work with them. Unlike cars, mobile phones are typically used in indoor areas, making line of sight connections in these areas impossible. In addition, most mobile phones have very limited processing power, making the task of calculating a triangulated position a real challenge. Finally, GPS coordinates are practically useless without mapping data to compare it against. Without maps, users would be left scratching their heads with a set of latitude and longitude coordinates of several digits each. Consider that for a car navigation system, typical mapping data of the whole country of Australia is fitted onto a 4.7 gigabyte DVD. Even today's mobile phones don't typically have that type of storage space. Because of these problems, GPS in phones has taken some time to be realised.
To solve these problems, Assisted GPS or AGPS was introduced. AGPS takes advantage of a mobile phone network to connect with an assistance server, which takes the detected satellites' coordinates and does the complex processing necessary to work out coordinates for the receiver's location. The server also has access to a reference network - a set of GPS receiving stations that has a better ability to track the satellites. This allows the phone to get a position without a direct line-of-sight path to GPS satellites. Finally, mapping data for the receiver's immediate vicinity can be provided to it directly over the air from a specialist mapping provider, eliminating the need to carry that data locally. The end result is a phone that can practically use the GPS service, calculating its position in seconds in nearly any location.
GPS applications in phones thus far
So why has Nokia decided to implement GPS into its latest phones, such as the N95 and 6110 Navigator? The truth is, phones with GPS have actually been around for a little while now. In Japan, phones first appeared with GPS functionality as early as 2001 on the KDDI au network. In November that year, the company launched its 'eznavigation' service, which involved two phones from Hitachi and Kyocera with small built-in GPS receivers. They could download data from more than three satellites at once and use it, in addition to location data from a CDMA base tower, to work out their own locations. KDDI partnered with several Japanese content providers to offer an experience very similar to in-car navigation systems, as well as much more. Besides simply checking where you were, you could program an address, or the name of a restaurant or shopping centre and have the phone guide you to it. If you were trying to find a friend and were hopelessly lost, he or she could send you a text message with their location, which the phone then placed on a map and guided you to.
Another service put trains into the destination route, linking up with a train timetable database to enable a reliable route using a train trip. It would even tell you if you needed to stop at a certain station to change onto another train. There was also a traffic service that would show if particular motorways were clogged with traffic and unusable. This service also took advantage of a database accessible through the mobile phone network.
KDDI offered 21 different services with its initial GPS offering, and in the six years that have passed since then, many more were added by different content providers.
But what about outside Japan you say? In most of the world GPS has largely been ignored by mobile phone manufacturers, possibly because of the effort needed to partner with content providers to enable services such as the above. Most operators have resorted to simple location services that only use information gained by a mobile phone base station. Base stations can measure an approximate location by measuring the strength of the phone's signal and the time it takes to reach several other base stations. On its own however, this method is inaccurate compared to GPS. In 2002, Three introduced and used this method in several markets, including Australia, despite many of its early Motorola phones (such as the A835 and A1000) having proper GPS hardware installed. Its service, Quick Map, was able to figure out your approximate current location and could tell you about nearby points of interest. Another service, 'A to B', would plot a route to an input destination and guide you there.
In the USA, GPS has been mainly used for emergency location services. The US Federal Communications Commission requires all phone manufacturers who sell devices in the country to transmit phone number and location information to emergency services such as the police under the E911 program. This has resulted in many phones having GPS functionality solely for this purpose.
GPS phones in 2007
So coming back to the latest Nokia devices. We learnt that Nokia's N95 was coming with GPS back in September last year. The N95 has an AGPS module and thanks to its large amount of built-in memory, it also features simple, 'globe-level' maps for more than 100 countries. For more detailed, street level maps the phone connects to the internet and downloads the data it needs. Nokia says the service will be available free of charge, although you'd obviously be liable for data transfer charges. The Nokia software also allows for sending your own location to other people via messaging or Bluetooth, while a search function lets you look for important places by name or by their type (restaurant, parking space etc). The N95 is expected to be available by the end of March.
Just a few days ago at the 3GSM Congress, Nokia announced its second GPS phone, the 6110 Navigator. This phone will be far cheaper than the N95 and should be more accessible. It's also different in that the phone's included memory card will come preloaded with detailed maps for the area its sold in. The 6110 will be out in Europe some time in the second quarter of the year, with an Australian release date unconfirmed as yet.
If you're wondering where the other phone manufacturers fit into the picture, you're not the only one. Nokia is currently alone in pressing ahead with GPS-integrated phones, and while another company is bound to take up GPS in competition with Nokia, we're yet to hear of any official announcement.
6110 navigator preview article
N95 preview article
Mio A710 GPS & PDA phone review