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Communications

Roamin' Holiday

GPS phones promise to change the way we think about location.

37° 48.325’ N, 122° 24.343’ W, +30 meters altitude. That’s the location of my desk in Technology Review’s San Francisco office. Just enter the coordinates into your cell phone, and it’ll take you right to me.

Unless, of course, you don’t have access to your phone’s built-in navigation features. Many new phones use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine their coordinates, which can then be transmitted to 911 operators in an emergency. But Sprint and Verizon Wireless, which both sell handsets with built-in GPS chips, have not yet given outside software developers access to this same location information.

So GPS navigation tools and related location technologies that ought to be standard features in today’s phones remain far-off dreams for most cell-phone owners. Of all the major carriers in North America, only Nextel offers phones with user-accessible GPS functions.

Over time, that will change. The cell phone is the one computing and communications device that consumers carry everywhere they go, and as soon as enough people see their Nextel-toting neighbors enjoying GPS navigation and other location-driven services, cellular carriers and phone manufacturers will bow to consumer demand.

Imagine leaving your car at home and networking with other GPS-phone users to form impromptu car pools, or receiving Web pages on your phone about Pickett’s ill-fated charge as you amble up Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. Geo-aware devices that trigger location-specific services will become as natural as the very idea of wirelessness, and the Web itself will cease to be a placeless cyberspace and will be pinned at millions of points to the physical world we inhabit.

Meanwhile, though, I wanted to get a sense of what Nextel customers can do with the technology today. So I borrowed a couple of GPS-enabled Nextel phones and hit the streets of San Francisco to see how well they could handle everyday navigation tasks. For comparison, I also carried a dedicated GPS receiver I’d purchased a few weeks earlier.

A few words about the receiver. Having enjoyed the GPS navigation units in cars I’d rented in Canada and Germany, and having read with interest about the emerging sport of geocaching, I’d been pining for my own GPS unit for some time. I headed over to the local REI and splurged on a Garmin GPSmap 60C.

It’s the company’s flagship handheld unit, distinguished by a large color display that’s remarkably bright even when the backlight is off. After spending a few hours with the instruction manual, I felt ready to strike out on my first geocaching expedition. Geocaching is one of those outdoor sports that, like hang gliding, jet skiing, and rappelling, exist only because some tinkerer invented the right thingamajig. (For GPS, of course, we’re indebted to the U.S. Navy and Air Force, who wanted a way to get ICBMs to their precise targets.)

Geocachers hide camouflaged caches – typically, small ammo boxes or Tupperware containers holding logbooks and a few trinkets for visitors to take and replace – then publish their latitudes and longitudes on the Internet. Geocache hunters download these locations, called waypoints, to their GPS units and navigate to the caches using only the units’ built-in compasses, maps, and range indicators.

Geocaching.com, the sport’s leading website, lists more than 185,000 cache locations worldwide. I downloaded a dozen in San Francisco and neighboring Marin County and spent two successive Sundays striding about holding the Garmin unit out in front of me like a high-tech divining rod. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost eight years, the searches took me down streets and trails I’d never traveled before.

The 60C showed me highly detailed maps, laid down virtual “bread crumbs” that I used later to reconstruct my journeys on my home PC, and was sufficiently sensitive to GPS signals to guide me to within about three meters of a given waypoint. From there, it was up to me to find the caches. In Sausalito, I found one squeezed into a film canister that was glued to the underside of a piece of driftwood. On Russian Hill in San Francisco, I spent half an hour scrounging for a cache that turned out to be hidden in plain sight under a very convincing plastic rock.

The frisson of finding a cache is obviously part of the sport’s appeal, as is the fun of tramping through unfamiliar territory. But my guess is that some geocachers are also gadget freaks who, like me, marvel at the idea that a device the size of a chocolate bar can, in concert with a network of distant satellites, transform the abstract grid of latitude and longitude lines created by 19th-century astronomers and cartographers into something average folks can grab on to and utilize.

Indeed, GPS is transforming geography in much the same way that mechanical clocks and watches regularized our once fluid experience of time. As soon as there were simple ways to measure time, we could organize our actions around specific moments; every school bell and factory whistle in the nation could sound at 8:30 A.M. The concept of synchrony set the stage for the 19th-century revolutions in industry and transportation.

Similarly, now that we can easily measure latitude and longitude, we can organize our actions around specific locations. Adventurers can navigate to the same remote spot at different times, as in geocaching; businesses, artists, or historians can share online information about any physical thing using its GPS-supplied coordinates rather than a Web-type Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Call it “synlocality.”

But dedicated handhelds like the Garmin aren’t the wedge technology for GPS: cell phones are. So how do today’s GPS phones measure up? It depends on what you want to do with them. The Motorola i736, a jaunty red phone styled like Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR racing car, was loaned to me by Trimble, a Sunnyvale, CA, company that makes GPS hardware and software. The phone came with Trimble Outdoors, a Java program that displays location information and links to maps and route-planning applications running on Trimble’s servers.

Using Trimble Adventure Planner, a Windows program that I downloaded to my laptop, I created a set of waypoints for a walk around Telegraph Hill. The Adventure Planner program communicated via the Internet with Trimble’s servers, which in turn transmitted a route and the corresponding map data to the phone. Once I went outside and obtained a GPS fix, the phone guided me from waypoint to waypoint via the on-screen compass.

I found a few things troubling: the on-screen maps were too small to read comfortably; running Trimble Outdoors and other Java applications exhausted the device’s batteries in a couple of hours; and the actual positioning seemed less precise than the Garmin’s (the i736 could locate a waypoint only to within 10 meters or so – which isn’t precise enough for geocaching). But for a casual hiker who would take a phone along anyway, the i736 is probably ideal.

The i275 is another Motorola-Nextel phone, but thanks to preloaded TeleNav GPS software, the unit I tested was a very different beast. TeleNav, created by Televigation, which is also based in Sunnyvale, turns the phone into a credible substitute for an in-dash car navigation unit. I used it for a trip across town to San Francisco’s Stonestown Galleria. I looked up the mall’s address on Yahoo, called TeleNav’s 800 number, and spoke the city and street names and the address aloud. TeleNav’s servers interpreted my speech, calculated the best route, and transmitted turn-by-turn instructions to the phone.

As I drove, the phone offered helpful spoken instructions like “Prepare to turn right.” It all worked great, until I decided to outsmart traffic and zoomed a couple of exits past the phone’s recommended turnoff. TeleNav was slow to determine its new position, and I was taking turns faster than it could calculate a new route. If I had actually been lost, this delay would have made matters worse. Full in-dash GPS units are more agile, in my experience. But the i275 got me to the mall in the end.

I wouldn’t give up my Garmin for either of these phones. But for people who don’t need to know their positions down to a thousandth of a minute, they’re just fine. And even including a monthly subscription to TeleNav or Trimble Outdoors, they are relatively cheap. The $99 cell phone will bring GPS to Everyman – who will find uses for it everywhere.

Some Where-Aware Gadgets
Garmin GPSmap 60C handheld GPS receiver
$482 suggested retail price
$139 for basic North American road maps

Motorola i275 mobile phone for the Nextel network
$99 with a two-year service agreement
$10 per month for added TeleNav navigation service

Motorola i736 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series phone
$99 with two-year service agreement
$10 per month for added Trimble Outdoors
Platinum GPS application

Wade Roush is a senior editor at Technology Review.

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