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Summary:

Updated: Despite all the hoopla around location-based services, the fact of the matter is that a mere 15 percent of handsets have a built-in Global Positioning System. Given Google’s recent wireless push, one shouldn’t be surprised that Google is releasing an updated version of its Google […]

Updated: Despite all the hoopla around location-based services, the fact of the matter is that a mere 15 percent of handsets have a built-in Global Positioning System. Given Google’s recent wireless push, one shouldn’t be surprised that Google is releasing an updated version of its Google Maps for Mobile application, which comes with a new service that gives you rudimentary location information without needing a built-in GPS. This new feature is called My Location and is still in the beta phase of its lifecycle. The service will work wherever Google Maps for Mobile is currently available — the U.S., UK, Europe and parts of Asia, for instance.

gmm1.gifWhile not quite high on the accuracy chart, the new application uses information broadcasted from cell towers and triangulates finds your approximate location. (Because of how the application estimates your location, a certain amount of information is sent to Google servers, and if you have privacy concerns, then you can turn the My Location feature off in your maps application.)

Google (GOOG) says the application will put you somewhere in the 500- to 5,000-meter range of where you really are, depending on the cell tower density. From there, you can use the “0” key to get yourself positioned on the map.

A Google spokesperson suggested that the new service works primarily with the newish smart phones. The application is currently compatible with BlackBerry devices, some recent Motorola and Sony Ericsson devices, and many Windows Mobile phone and Nokia Series 60 3rd Edition devices. It’s also fairly easy to install if you have a proper browser on your phone. The new app doesn’t support the iPhone, Motorola Q, Samsung Blackjack and Palm Treo 700w.

I couldn’t get the application to work on my N95, mostly because it kept trying to access the built-in GPS. And when I turned the GPS off, it placed me in London — a city I would like to be in right now, but that is not the case. However, on the older N73 handset, it worked as advertised. The experience on a Blackberry was as good, though I think TeleNav is hands-down a better offering, especially on the newer GPS-enabled BlackBerrys. On the other hand, Google Maps is free.

While Google says the location might not be that precise, putting the accuracy at between 500 and 5,000 meters, in my tests using a 8800 Series Blackberry, the accuracy was close to 97 percent. It showed me half a block away from my apartment, but then I live in an area where cell towers abound. I would love to try this in an area of sparse cellular coverage and see how it performs. The good news is that I can find that out when I do the rounds of Sand Hill Road later today.

Anyway, if you try this application, let me know about your experience.

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  1. installed it on the tmobile BB Curve, worked great and showed my location correctly upon startup. I love google!

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  2. Let me vent here: why can’t I know from the application if there’s a newer version than the one I have installed available — or from Google the version number of the one available for download? Thanks for doing Google’s work!

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  3. So, this capability (cell tower triangulation) is available to all providers and not just Google, right? And this is so, without the permission of the operators, right?

    So, I don’t get how this contributes as a competitive barrier for them?

    p.s. I think it’s cute how Om throws in a few flaws to make his posts about Google and Apple products seem unbiased (as opposed to marketing)

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  4. Can you feel the Jaiku?
    :-)

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  5. What are the odds that we’ll see this feature in the next iPhone software update for the Google Maps application? I’m thinking pretty good…

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  6. Location info based on cell towers has been available for some time.

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  7. Om,

    Are you sure that this is using triangulation?

    The way the service shows up is to map the coordinates of the cell tower the phone is registered with. It is simple to obtain the cellID with the client on the phone. The CellID is mapped onto a LatLong coordinate by a database lookup and that can be shown on the map. CellID based locations are roughly 1km+ of accuracy. Most urban areas will get you in this range. I am showing up within 1.5 km. In a dense coverage area you will find your location changing even though you are at the same spot, your phone may latch on to different cells. I am showing my location moving from one tower to the other. If it was triangulated with the signal strength, it would have stayed relatively in the same spot.

    You do need GPS for < 50m accuracy. CellID Location is good to get the idea about the vicinity.

    Anecdote – in Asia, the service providers would tie the locality name to the cell-tower. The older generation of phones had the capability to disply the network info on the main screen and the name of the locality would simply show up. So you would simply know your whereabouts. Gmaps are telling the same thing but delivered better visually.

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  8. Tried it on Moto Q9h – no go.

    It’s interesting app though. It tells you where you are. What it can’t do is send that location information to somebody’s web server. We have a browser plugin (that is extensible via open API’s) that allows you to add any location data to the outgoing HTTPrequest headers (e.g. http://www.gigaom.com) which your server could then use to offer additional location services.

    The key here is that the location data should be available (at your discretion) to not just Google maps but any other service that wants it.

    BTW everything we’ve done is integrated into the browser – including local search using real time GPS. (More at http://www.5o9inc.com)

    Cheers,

    Peter

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  9. I can see how cell tower accuracy would be useful for local search, but not so much for navigation.

    Google maps for mobile doesn’t do turn-by-turn anyway, so I think its a moot point.

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  10. Tried this on a BlackBerry Pearl 8100. Downtown of a US West Coast metro. Shows my location accurate to within 50 m at max zoom! At higher zoom levels the accuracy seemed to be 100% (same building block).

    Regarding privacy concerns, this is what Google’s Help says:
    Will Google always know where I am if I use My Location (beta)?

    No. A handset’s approximate location is not saved on our servers or in our logs. Also, all handsets are anonymous, and our system is not aware of repeat visits from the same handset or that an individual handset has traveled from one location to another.

    Source: http://www.google.com/support/mobile/bin/answer.py?answer=81874&topic=12595

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