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Why the iPhone doesn’t need GPS

Published in Geolocation, Mobile, Neogeography  |  11 Comments

iPhoneGPSYou may be surprised to hear me say this, but here is it — the iPhone doesn’t need GPS.

Macworld disagrees (via Directions Magazine). Specifically, Macworld said:

Add GPS support … [the iPhone] would be the ultimate mapping application if it knew where you actually were at all times

They’re confusing the issue. Geolocation does not mean GPS. GPS is a specific technology implementation of getting a location fix. It is also frought with complications that are most apparent in areas that people may use a mobile phone to find out what’s going on around them – that being urban areas, indoors, or anywhere that doesn’t have good sky coverage.

I have an N95 – that’s because I’m a geo-geek. I wanted to have programmatic access to my precise location so that I could write prototype applications for mapping, geolocation, and so forth.

I am not an average user

In fact, one of the most complained about features in the N95 has been it’s slow to fix GPS. Nokia finally got it better, from 74 seconds to 57 seconds, with their firmware upgrade.

That’s still almost 1 minute from turning GPS on (which doesn’t always happen automatically) to getting a location fix. That’s also probably in a decently clear area. This is all well and good – now I can see a moving dot in MGMaps (though not GoogleMap yet), or precisely geotag my photos.

Another problem with GPS – it’s a battery hog. I’ve killed my battery in several hours when using GPS, and even shorter if I leave the GPS on and indoors – leaving the processor to be constantly trying to calculate find GPS signals and parse their GOLD-codes (read more about how GPS works).

Personally, I get rather frustrated standing there (and anyone else waiting with me more so) staring at my phone, hoping for a fix so I can then take a photo. And remember, I’m a geek, I live for this pain – your average user won’t.

But I want my geo-aware iPhone!

My point is, geolocation does not mean having a GPS. There are numerous methods of automatically locating yourself that doesn’t require listening to satellites 24,000 miles away.

Cell Towers and WiFi are both simple, and accurate, methods of getting your location within 10 feet. This is the type of accuracy you may expect from GPS anyways. But you can get a cellular location or WiFi location in seconds – not a minute.

It also works indoors – and best of all (with respect to this post), the current revision of the iPhone has the hardware already. In fact, it would just be a software update to turn on geolocation on the iPhone.

The future is now

So I hope to hear less of people bemoaning the iPhone’s lack of a GPS chip – and instead ask the more reasonable question “Why doesn’t the iPhone do geolocation by cell or WiFi?” And while you’re at it, ask that the location gets exposed with Javascript hooks through Safari so web applications can make use of it.

You can still have your geotagged photos (what’s more interesting, that you were at [-23.538809, -46.618423] or São Paulo, Brazil?), find friends in the area, local pub search, or even maps near me.

If you want to see how something like that works – install the Loki Toolbar – which uses WiFi Geolocation – and then go to Mapufacture Search for automatic ‘nearby’ searching – no GPS required.

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  1. Jeffrey Johnson says:

    August 7th, 2007 at 6:45 pm (#)

    Let me also register my dissatisfaction with the GPS capabilities of the N95. What a mess standing around waiting for a signal in order to take a picture, and we are trying to do repetitive photos with a moving … flying device And what a mess with the symbiansigned devcert process to get access to the location requestor API. But, as you, I live for this pain 🙂

    What progress (if any) is anyone making on doing gsm/wifi based geolocation on the iPhone? I haven’t read anything yet, but am keeping up with the latest hacks. Better yet, why cant we figure out how to use a bluetooth gps with it if we want.

  2. Tom Printy says:

    August 8th, 2007 at 8:38 am (#)

    While I don’t have either phone I don’t think that one solution will always work. I think that having a GPS receiver in the phone and using wifi and using cell tower triangulation is best. While the last two would work great in urban areas where there is a lot of cell towers and perhaps a lot of wifi hotspots, in the country these solutions might not work. There might not be 3 cell towers to triangulate a location or enough wifi to do the same. So the phone should be smart enough to figure out which option would be the best to sense it’s location. It should opt for the lower powered solutions then only enable the GPS if it absolutely needs too. Of course it could be a little less agressive on the GPS side of things to save battery life. I have a Motorola i415 that can get a signal in under 30 seconds in the clear and is pretty decent on battery life however it only gets a new fix when I ask it to.

  3. Allan Doyle says:

    August 8th, 2007 at 12:06 pm (#)

    I’m holding out for the bluetooth device that combines GPS, inertial navigation, wifi location, etc. yet still sends NMEA compatible info…

  4. Joe Mobile says:

    August 8th, 2007 at 1:13 pm (#)

    Andrew, I agree with a few of your points, but the current iPhone does not have good “geolocation” options. Cell ID (cell towers, as you called them) is only accurate within 100-300 meters. And less in rural areas where towers are more spread out. Not good for anything except local weather and local search. Certainly not for turn-by-turn directions. As for WiFi, it only works in densely populated areas where there are lots of access points. Definitely bad for navigation. Not to mention, people sometimes move their WiFi routers and your location can be screwed up. This approach will be great when WiMAX rolls out, but not yet. Finally, WiFi will kill your batter much faster than GPS.

  5. Andrew says:

    August 8th, 2007 at 1:26 pm (#)

    @Joe Mobile – I’ve seen what the carriers use for tracking, and they can pinpoint – at least in a city, where you are within several meters – they use it for finding dead-spots in urban areas in order to install better coverage.

    You also poo-poo “local search” yet this is an incredibly powerful thing. And I would argue not many people use their N95 for turn-by-turn directions. For one, I would find the small screen and difficult interaction very distracting when using while driving. It would help with a passenger – but better would be an “mobile phone car system” that you plugged in that had GPS and connected to a larger, touch-screen, in-car screen display.

    WiFi Geolocation works fairly well, judging by my experiences with Loki, Navizon, et al. And as more wifi routers are put online, moving 1 or 2 of 10 doesn’t have a large effect.

    Really, if my iPhone by default showed me a map of South-East Michigan instead of San Francisco, I’d be fairly happy.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention IP-Geolocation. Typically really bad for GSM data connections, but with some effort by the carrier (AT&T) they could expose this information to an API.

    Anyways, my point was, users (and more-so bloggers/media that definitely should know better) that are complaining need to really think about what they want – and then how they can have it now instead of lamenting about what the next version may have.

  6. Ryan Sarver says:

    August 9th, 2007 at 6:58 am (#)

    @Andrew. I can only speak from the WiFi side of things, but your post is pretty dead-on. We look at our technology in two ways.

    First we can augment GPS where it has inherent and known issues — things like indoor positioning, time to first fix and urban canyons. And just to be very clear, moving APs are not really an issue for us in coverage areas. As you pointed out we typically see 10-12 APs in a median scan, so even if 5 or 6 of them have moved we have more than enough information to determine an accurate location.

    Secondly, we can add location to devices where GPS is currently unavailable or where GPS might be too costly. This includes laptops, WiFi-only devices like the W10 or the N800 and especially devices like the iPhone where they have already made an investment in mapping and WiFi.

    @Joe Mobile — to your point, no single location technology delivers the ultimate experience. We believe strongly in fusing together multiple technologies to deliver the best experience to the user. But to be clear, our technology is more than accurate enough to deliver turn-by-turn directions in our coverage areas and helps deliver location where most location bases services are used — in urban areas. In terms of WiFi and battery life, this is also a misnomer. It is mostly up to the application and OS how WiFi is managed. A typical location lookup using WiFi takes under a second, then the adapter can be turned off. Whereas with GPS it may scan for a number of minutes if not indefinitely if you are indoors or in an urban area — thus draining your battery much more.

  7. Henri Bergius says:

    August 13th, 2007 at 9:27 am (#)

    Obviously something like GeoClue would be useful also to non-Linux devices like iPhone. It would allow seamless positioning using multiple different backends like GPS, Plazes or whatever.

  8. High Earth Orbit » Blog Archive » My N95 - Applications, uses, and should haves says:

    August 29th, 2007 at 11:43 pm (#)

    […] In my earlier post I explained why a mobile device was better providing a web app integration environment rather than a ‘native’ application. But, because I’m a geek, I currently use the N95 (and it has ‘uses’). […]

  9. Upgraded Maps in Firmware 1.1.3 still needs some work says:

    January 17th, 2008 at 5:19 pm (#)

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  10. Andrew Grill says:

    January 22nd, 2008 at 8:28 pm (#)

    Andrew, just discovered this post and I totally agree.

    See my post at

    which also addresses this issue.

    Ps – notice you are also using Dopplr.

    Andrew Grill

  11. FireEagle :: High Earth Orbit says:

    March 5th, 2008 at 6:45 pm (#)

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