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With Google's My Location, Who Needs a GPS?

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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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132 Responses to “With Google's My Location, Who Needs a GPS?”

  1. this is not triangulation it is the cell tower location. Google has gone through the truck-rolling process and mapped out the cell id location for all carriers. This is an violation of carrier policy, others in europe and US have tried. Only smartphones can access the cell id info without the app being signed by the carrier, otherwise it would work on all phones. when carriers change the cell id name and that would require another truck roll. For example ATT 20056 would be renamed ATT 20465 and wouldnt match up with google database. IF GOOG has done this then it is ABSOLUTELY recreating navteq.

  2. Just installed it on the iMate JasJam (HTC phone) here in New Zealand.
    Worked perfectly – the fact our building has a cell tower on it no doubt helped, but yeah blue dot showed up fine. I’m yet to test it from home where there are fewer cell towers.

  3. This is a 19th century technique. I do not know why everyone including Google is making such a BIG DEAL about this – MyLocation. We in INDIA had this facility by default when cellphones first came out in late 1980s. On connection (on call) – between 2 cellphones – both parties could tell their approximate location based on the tower their cell was using to connect to the network. I cannot believe Google is trying to claim this is something they developed….it was being used in backward India, before Google and the BIG names IT houses were even conceived!!!!!

  4. Given how much energy a GPS sensor uses (a lot) and how long it takes to pinpoint your position with GPS (typically a minute, some cellphones need up to 3 minutes) I think this makes a lot of sense.

    In a typical Local Search situation, when I look for a shop or restaurant, I want to have the location NOW. No one will fire up the application, get a position, search and download the map if it takes 2 MINUTES.

    Wonder where google gets the cell tower information from. In Europe at least, this information is kept secret by the MNOs. They charge 10 to 30 cents for a single triangulation.

  5. Emacs MTV

    Downloaded latest Google maps and tried it. It gave my location about 1/5 a mile off from where I was, but I was pretty impressed on how quickly it identified my location.

    But the main problem with Google maps is you need expensive data connection. It is cheaper to buy a bluetooth GPS antenna and get 10x better accuracy. I wish Google would cache the maps data for the region I usually drive around in – then it may become a little more useful than a mere cute curiosity.

  6. Google is a greedy hype machine, either with android, opensocial or LBS they are all half baked.

    There were lot of high school projects locating based on ip-address or cell tower info. Can some body sue Google for knowingly, point them in wrong direction. Google Maps is good product, there are several solutions like this, infact benefited by keyhole acquisition. Benefits with PR stunts: surge in their stock price, more confidence on google for advertiser and substantiate their position further.

    Om, hope you would voice these opinions and hold them accountable for quality products, when every blogger is drumming to their beat.

  7. I attempted to install this on my SonyEricsson W910i and it completely killed my phone. I’ve never seen anything like it. After install, the phone restarted itself (!) and went into this loop. I pull the battery and try again and restart loop continues. That’s fucked up.



  8. Herman Manfred

    Tried it on my SonyEricsson520A.

    Per the Google Maps web site:

    “…you can easily check whether or not My Location (beta)
    is available. Just to go “Help” > “About” from the application.
    If the box contains “myl: N/A,” it means your device isn’t
    reporting a cell…”

    Mine was a N/A…sigh.

    Mapping works fine, however (and is uber-expensive because I have no data plan!).

  9. I tried it out on my Cingular 8525 and it put me within 3 blocks of my office. Not to shabby. I can see it being useful when you’re trying to get directions from somewhere and either don’t know an exact address or are just too lazy to type it in.

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

    Actually it does. It doesn’t automatically change after you’ve turned and there’s no British guy telling you when you screwed up. But it does show each turn and you press arrow buttons to move to the next turn.

  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.


  11. 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. 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



  12. agnosticMaven


    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.

  13. 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)

  14. Hillrider

    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!