On the iPhone and Its Lack of GPS

To read some of the commentary about the iPhone’s implementation of Google Maps, you’d think that a mobile mapping application is worthless without GPS. But is it?

All Points Blog’s Joe Francica doesn’t say so outright, but in this dismissive post, he argues that Apple missed the mark by not creating a social-networking- and location-based megadevice (rather than, well, a phone).

The only thing I can see that is somewhat innovative is the integration the iPhone has with its other features. That is, when you select a particular POI, let’s say a restaurant, and you touch the pin location on the map display, the user is able to see and then dial the phone number for that establishment. That’s cool, I’ll admit. The ability to view traffic maps is just a yawner. It’s just a feature of another website. Routing? Please don’t insult me. Where is the “live” link to my location? Show me my friends, my pets, my car and everyone and everything else in my network. Show them to me on the map as my “in-network” favs. The map features are basically static. It lacks the “wow” factor so common to Apple products and for a company that prides itself on catering to the gen X’ers, Y’s or whoever, the opportunity to establish the iPhone as the primo location-based social networking device was a huge miss. Even local search, the hottest thing going, is simply web-based look up on the iPhone. Without GPS, (or Wi-Fi triangulation) it’s simply just a web browser.

As a smartphone aimed at the general public, the iPhone is doubtless going to be a disappointment to those with a geospatial fixation, but that hasn’t stopped Peter Batty, at least, from buying one, even if he’s “disappointed that the iPhone doesn’t have a GPS.” He’s since run the iPhone through its paces: see his review of Google Maps on the iPhone, his disappointment at the shortcomings of Google Maps’s local search, and his thoughts after one week’s use.

Reviews of the iPhone’s maps outside the geospatial community tend to be positive and focus on the user interface. If the lack of GPS is mentioned, it’s mentioned in passing. Engadget is a fan of Google Maps on smartphones in general, and on the iPhone in particular; Ars Technica focuses on how to use it; Gizmodo’s review not only notes the lack of GPS, but problems with pinch zooming and the lack of a hybrid view.

I think the lack of GPS would be less of an issue if there weren’t already phones out there with built-in GPS. And if the iPhone is measured against another phone, it’s usually compared to Nokia’s N95, a $750 smartphone with a better camera, built-in GPS and, to be sure, shorter battery life.

But adding GPS to the N95 is not cost-free: it adds complexity, reduces battery life and, well, might not work as well as on a standalone GPS receiver. AppleInsider’s iPhone review: “A GPS enabled phone like the Nokia N95 looks really great on paper, but anyone actually using GPS will find the N95’s 4 hours of rated battery life turn into two hours of actual use when GPS is activated.” And Robert Scoble, who has both iPhones and an N95 in his house, says of the N95’s GPS, “yes, I’ve used it, it takes four minutes to get a lock most of the time.”

If Apple left out GPS because it would hose the iPhone’s battery life, it would not surprise me: some other questionable design decisions — EDGE rather than UTMS, a non-swappable battery — only make sense in terms of extending battery life.

My guess is that if there’s going to be GPS on the iPhone, it’ll come in the form of a separate GPS receiver that connects via Bluetooth.

In any event, the real innovation of maps on mobile phones is not whether or not the gadget has a GPS. It’s the fact that these gadgets don’t store their maps (along with the point of interest, directions, and traffic data) locally, but download them over the network. This means you don’t have to store the data on the device (with the associated storage limitations, and you usually have to buy the data), and the application is little more than a front-end to access the data in the cloud. A small footprint that makes it possible to install Google Maps, for example, on a lot of phones and PDAs, and with satisfying results. A GPS would be nice, but it would be the frosting, not the cake.