Why the iPhone doesn't need GPS

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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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.