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Summary:

GPS has become a standard feature on smartphones and is a key component of location-based apps that have gained tremendous popularity recently. The technology is trickling down into lower-end phones, which means the market for location apps is about to grow in a big way.

Worldwide shipments of GPS-enabled GSM/WCDMA handsets increased 92 percent in 2009, according to figures released this morning by Berg Insight, as the technology has become a standard feature in smartphones and mid-range feature phones. But GPS is also poised to become increasingly common on the kind of ultra-affordable phones that many mainstream users carry. Which means the potential market for GPS-enabled apps is about to get a lot bigger.

GPS is a key component in many of the location-aware smartphone apps that have become so popular in recent months. Both Foursquare and Gowalla use GPS to determine a user’s location, and lesser-known (but more practical) navigation titles like Waze leverage it as well. Usage of GPS on feature phones has largely been limited to carrier-branded navigation apps, however, by users whose handsets can’t support app distributors like Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android Market.

That is sure to change, though, as GPS makes its way onto the kind of handsets that are often given away free with a service contract in the U.S., or are available very cheaply without a contract elsewhere the world. That opens the door for developers of location apps to build offerings for cheaper phones and deliver them through distributors like GetJar, which provides apps for a wide range of phones. What’s more, Berg Insight notes that GPS functionality will begin to gradually improve starting next year as chip makers add support for the Russian GLONASS satellite system and leverage location information from cell networks and Wi-Fi connections. So while more users with cheap phones will soon be able to access the kind of GPS-enabled apps that have gained dramatic traction lately, those with high-end devices will find their location-based apps improving over the next few years, too.

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Image courtesy Flickr mikebaird.

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  1. I don’t know about Europe or Asia, but in the US, depending on the network, location is already a standard feature on low-end phones. This is probably largely due to the FCC Wireless E911 requirements which required that 95% of a carrier’s in-service phones be location-capable by the end of 2005 — four years ago…

    Now despite this, a quick scan through the cheapest phones on the major carriers websites still show a few that don’t have any location technology, but “free” (with a 2-yr contract) phones with GPS are available on every major US carrier. If the number of location apps increases on low-end phones, it will likely be due to reduced costs for high-speed processors and on-phone memory and faster downloads for complex map data than to further spread of GPS technology.

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