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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. Yahoo did this years ago with their ZoneTag application — crowd-sourced the tower IDs — and made it available this year to developers via web service API. Kudos to Google for pushing it forward, but cell ID has been around for at least 10 years and due to its inaccuracy was blamed for a lot of the previous disillusionment with LBS circa ’98.

    It is in no way shape or form a substitute for GPS (nor is it intended to be), but instead could be a carrier-free way to provide assistance data to supplement autonomous GPS handsets like the N95 and 8820 on AT&T (until they get assistance infrastructure up and running). With the GMM installed base, this could actually work as a fall-back for local search, particularly in dense urban areas with lots of towers.

  2. Who needs GPS? Of course me! and all the others who bought the GPS gadget months ago before your blog entry or the Google my location came out.

    Now the question is… who needs Google Location if people already owned GPS? and missed to read your informative blog?

  3. Guilherme Ambros

    Unlikely to be their own database like navizon. They wouldn’t do it in Finland, UK, and lots of other places people are reporting here. I tested navizon in several parts of US and some other countries and got erratic results. Usually good in more populated areas, but usually didn’t get a lock on more remote cities/streets..

    Assuming that operators are certainly not providing this information, I’d say that it’s more likely they used the IP address, just like any IP geo-coding available for dial-up/broadband.

  4. HeavyLight

    I’m very confused about the selection of GMM MyLocation.

    I’m in the UK and GMM shows me over 1700m from my “actual” position and GMM’s MyLocation has no transmitter for any telco (thank you, ofcom:
    And it’s certainly not a calculated triangulation as there are two masts for my telco nearer to me.

    I’d be very interested to hear Google’s explanation!

  5. Tried on N73 in Turku, Finland. The first hit was about 1 km off, but when my phone changed tower it got a bit closer. I am right now indoors with quite thick walls (and some problems with 3G networks), so I am not surprised. Will test this more if/when I need to go outdoors… :)

    Very nice, much easier that starting from a world map to find your current position!

  6. guilherme ambros

    just tested on an N73 and worked perfectly. Detected my position within 1800m range, which is pretty acceptable for a cell detection (as it was mentioned before, this is not triangulation, definitely).

    the comment that this someone created something similar before is irrelevant. Yeah, navizon did this for the hacked iphones, and several homebrew applications created something similar before, but still this is a groundbreaking achievement considering it’s from google (thus scalable, reliable, accurate and probably soon international).

    Maps is the least important piece of the puzzle; imagine the limitless possibilities of having search integrated with the approx distance on your cell phone. You could search for restaurants nearby. Or which of your friends (from facebo.. ops, orkut/OpenSocial) are near you.

    Or you may be in the mall looking for that cool new plasma, and want to check on Google products if there’s a better deal within 2 miles from there before signing the check…

    btw, this could be implemented TOMORROW. Without depending on operators willingness to cooperate, expensive over-the-air services, triangulation technologies or any other shit.

    yeah, this IS remarkable.

  7. There is the video that explains it all – you guys were right – bad choice of words. It basically seeks the nearest cell tower and finds you on that tower’s footprint. the video – forward to 1.05 to get a video representation of how it works.

  8. @ Steven and others – I think triangulation was a bad choice of words on my part, but I will still check with the guys from Google and post an update. I have already emailed their PR and should be hearing back soon. Apologies for not being clear and explicit about it.

  9. @steven: The move I think about it, the more it IS NOT cell tower trilateration but a single mapping of the tower you are connected to. So Steven I think you are correct. Why ? In the video (timeline 1:51) they say that it gets better the more you use it… I think they are crowdsourcing the mapping of cell tower against user’s who have the GPS chips turned on…

    Just a guess…

  10. As someone who lives in a sparsely populated cell tower area, I can tell you that it varies widely depending on which tower you’ve locked onto. The first try, it got “pretty close” and my location was inside the 1700m circle. Later on, my location was WAY outside the 1700m circle, but at least it was in the general area.

  11. I’m in the same boat as Andy Sternberg. I updated my LG CU500 (non-V version) and now I get “Invalid class. Can’t launch.” I quick search shows someone with an LG CU400 has the same issue. It appears the build is broken for the LG CU*00 phones, and there is no way to revert to an earlier version…

  12. herman manfred

    Unless someone actually has tried one of those cool bluetooth devices with GMM, here’s what Google has to say:

    From GMM:

    “…Does Google Maps use GPS to figure out where I am?

    It depends on your mobile provider and device. At this
    time, only Google Maps for Windows Mobile devices (2003
    Second Edition, 5.0 and above), BlackBerry 8800 and Nokia
    95 are enabled with GPS.

    For others, Google Maps doesn’t use any GPS technology,
    even if your phone has a built-in GPS location device…”