Maps On The Move

New services and software make it easy to use cell phones and PDAs to locate where you are--and get you to where you want to be.
Sprint Nextel is still in the process of determining how it will sell its combined mapping-related services in the aftermath of last month's merger. Nextel brings a number of services to the table, including MapQuest Find Me, Mobile Locator (locating employees by tracking their mobile devices), TeleNav (navigation and directions), and Trimble Outdoors (for travelers and adventurers). Sprint in May introduced a suite of location-based tools and applications called the Sprint Business Mobility Framework, aimed at helping companies track vehicle fleets and mobile workers, which includes mapping and messaging capabilities.

Companies and individuals also can get some services directly from mapping-technology providers. MapQuest sells its Find Me service for $6 a month and recently began offering a $4-per-month service, called MapQuest Mobile, that lets users find maps and directions at its Web site and then send that information to their mobile phones. In the next few months, MapQuest plans to come out with a group version of Find Me that lets users create groups and see the location of all the members on a map.

To get maps and directions, users activate their mapping software through an Internet link or a phone call to the carrier. If GPS technology is being used, it connects to a satellite to get the user's current position and communicates that information to the phone's mapping software. The software loads the map image that corresponds to the GPS coordinates and displays it on the phone screen. The GPS technology also finds the coordinates when users enter an address they want to locate, while the software builds the maps and serves up directions.

The cost of GPS has come down, making the technology more affordable. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft MSN could cut the the price of entry for mapping and location-based services even more. In the past few months, all three have begun giving developers access to interfaces for their Web-based maps, with Microsoft being the first to offer a commercial API. Users make an Internet connection either through a cellular network or Wi-Fi hot-spot. The result is things like KMaps and Mobile GMaps, free software that can be downloaded to mobile devices (see story, at right).

Anyone using Wi-Fi for mapping, however, better not need it too badly. Given the current limited Wi-Fi coverage, it isn't going to solve many business users' needs. Crow's Eye Inc. would like to make its Web-based, 3-D mapping software available on Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs and smart phones. People use the software on PCs to map destinations for conferences, business meetings, or tourist groups. But the vendor concluded that there aren't enough hot-spots to pinpoint the location of a mobile user.

Once it's practical to offer that service, Crow's Eye expects a boom in location-based local advertising--so, for example, a tourist trap can advertise to people looking at a map of a nearby attraction. That's when "the associated business opportunities of local advertising will flourish, and we'll be ready," says Bob Vander Woude, president and CEO of Crow's Eye.

All the big Internet and telecom players are sure to jump on the market for localized, location-based advertising, once it becomes technically practical and big enough to be profitable, though it raises obvious privacy concerns. Pinpointing a person's exact location on a map means every move could potentially be tracked and recorded--by a service provider or a hacker. Never mind the potential intrusion of unwanted local ads.

But Wi-Fi could become more practical, at least in metro areas, as 200 municipalities already have or are planning to build Wi-Fi networks, with 220 more expected in the next 12 months, according to a study by Tropos Networks Inc. Intel has 13 cities in a pilot initiative started this month called Digital Communities to increase cities' adoption of wireless technology.

Police and rescue workers are among those leading the way in wireless mapping. The New York Police Department opened its $11 million Real Time Crime Center in July to give officers faster trend information about where murders or other violent crimes take place citywide. The NYPD uses MapInfo's MapXtreme software to analyze crime trends and patterns, using detailed precinct-by-precinct maps that drill down to suspects' home addresses.

About a year ago, the NYPD installed Wi-Fi-enabled laptops in police cars. Information from the Crime Center, including data collected and presented by MapXtreme, is sent to laptops wirelessly. CIO Jim Onalfo says the NYPD eventually wants to make the mapping function available directly on the laptops, without having to go through the crime center. The NYPD is testing 700 PDAs for various officer functions, but Onalfo says the screens on them are probably too small for crime-mapping functions.

That's the conclusion some business technologists reach today about handheld, wireless mapping: "We'd love to, but ...." Phil Go, CIO at construction company Barton Malow Co., likes the idea of mapping on PDAs and cell phones but isn't sure it's practical to read maps on small screens. Also, mapping applications can be power-hungry, and mobile workers can't worry about frequent battery recharging. "These might seem like minimal problems, but in reality, out in the field we need something that comes close to the user interface and performance of a laptop," Go says.

The drawbacks and challenges, however, hardly seem formidable compared with the opportunities. Consider more compelling wireless-mapping applications, such as those that integrate instant messaging to show where colleagues are on a map while they talk or type. Consider the advertising channel of reaching people with a message where they can take action. Some businesses are working around the problems already to put wireless mapping to profitable use. Given the potential for users and vendors, don't expect the barriers to hold up for long. People will find a way around the problems--it's right there on the little screen in front of them.

Photo by Sacha Lecca

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