Is mobile GPS going in the wrong direction?

Most mobile services which are peddled as the "next big thing" have been around for donkey's years, while operators and handset manufacturers try to find a reason to convince consumers to actually pay for them. GPS looks to be going down the same road.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor on

Most mobile services which are peddled as the "next big thing" have actually been around for donkey's years, as operators and handset manufacturers think up ways of making consumers pay for them.

Take WiMax, for example. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, over the last three or four years, that "This year will be WiMax's year", I'd have enough for dinner at Café Sydney. And I'd still be surprised if WiMax actually starts making its mark before 2008 or 2009, when Nokia starts making handsets for US operator Sprint's nascent network.

GPS is starting to look much the same. Operators are very keen to get it into mobile handsets -- Nokia Australia execs recently told ZDNet Australia that they expect GPS to one day become as ubiquitous as cameras on mobiles -- yet they appear to have stumbled when it comes to giving users a reason to care.

Mapping and navigation are still the primary services based on GPS, and most GPS units remain firmly attached to dashboards -- there's no compelling reason for users to switch from their car-mounted units to squinting at the same map on a mobile phone.

So it falls on the operators to build another layer of services on top of the raw satellite mapping capabilities in order to convince consumers that mobile GPS is more than a white elephant.

Vodafone is having a decent pop at just such a move with its recently launched Compass GPS service. While the service currently works on just one handset, the BlackBerry 8310, the operator is working on spreading the platform across a range of its devices before too long. It is even giving away a Compass subscription for free to anyone signing up before 1 December.

Vodafone is also planning to update the software every few months as new location-aware services come online. One potential being considered is a service that not only alerts a user to their nearest car park, but also tells them how many spaces are available.

Compass also makes a fair stab at catering to both drivers and pedestrians with its mapping. The former with features such as the ability to choose between taking the route that saves the most time or the route that saves the most petrol; the latter with maps that come with street names to help the navigationally challenged.

One addition to the service will be the ability for Compass users to share their location with other customers of the service. While such functionality sounds great at first -- find a friend for coffee during your lunch hour -- it's typical of the not-quite-there nature of location-based services.

After all, on any given day, most people will spend a large part of their day at home, in the office, perhaps in the pub or gym -- and GPS does not work indoors or where there is no line of sight to the satellite, thus rendering the service useless.

However, I can't help but wonder if perhaps Vodafone et all are missing a trick with location-based services. Perhaps people could exploit information being sent from, rather than being requested by, users.

Instead of sharing a location with a friend, I could see far more mileage in sharing that information with a taxi company. Instead of getting arm ache, sticking your hand out in the middle of the road and being ignored as you wait in the rain, how much easier it would be to simply press a button in Compass and let the taxi come to you.

I'm sure there are thousands more great uses for mobile GPS bubbling away in the minds of users. What would you like to see the operators working on? Or do you think mobile GPS will remain something of a third wheel? Let us know by posting a reader comment below or e-mail us at edit@zdnet.com.au.

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