This post is a bit off-topic, but geolocation has been a side interest of mine for some time.

iPhone Geoloc

There are two ways a mobile device can figure out its location. GPS is the most common way and it is appearing in ever-cheaper phones and car navigation systems. But adding the GPS radio and chipset still has an incremental cost, so many handsets (including the iPhone) don’t include it.

The other way is to triangulate based on signals from WiFi hotspots and cell phone towers. Navizon pioneered this technique starting in 2005. They offer a software download for most smart phones that adds geolocation features even if you don’t have GPS. And if you do have GPS, it improves the accuracy (especially in dense urban areas). What I like about Navizon’s approach is that the map of “Signal Space” is user-generated. That is, users with GPS on their device contribute to the database of which cell towers and hotspots are where. Navizon even has a program to pay people that provide this data.

Another neat thing is that you get mobile coverage maps as a byproduct. More from Brough Turner here.

In September, Navizon released a version for the iPhone. I’ll bet they were hoping for a nice deal with Apple to make their geolocation system part of the core system (like Apple does with Google Maps). No dice.

Instead, Apple released a firmware upgrade that crippled Navizon (and many other apps), causing their CEO to actually cry. (Which you can watch here. Ah, what an age we live in.)

And then, three months later, Apple releases another update that includes Navizon-like geolocation. According to their press release: “iPhone can now triangulate your position using nearby Wi-Fi base stations or cellular towers.” Ouch. More at Gizmodo.

What’s Navizon going to do next? Some speculation here: “Can Navizon survive Google’s location mapping in iPhone v1.1.3?

There are some early reports of poor performance from iPhone’s geolocation. DreamOfToday said “it can’t find a hippie at Woodstock.” (Couldn’t resist including that quote.) So maybe Navizon can win on better technology and/or a better signal map.

And then there’s the legal angle. A friend of mine who is close to the company said that Navizon’s patent coverage on this technology is “solid”.

On one hand, I feel bad for a scrappy start-up that was way ahead of the curve. But on the other hand, I continue to be awed by how much excellent product engineering comes out of Apple. They’re simply on fire.

(Image from GearLive.)


6 Responses to Apple Plays Hardball with Geolocation

  1. amy says:

    I don’t think the decisive factor here was cost but power consumption. GPS takes up lots more power than wifi and from what I heard, the iPhone isn’t the most power efficient phoe out there.

  2. Shai says:

    Amy, good point. Hadn’t thought of that.

  3. Jason Bigue says:

    It’ll be interesting to see how things go for Navizon. They’ve been at this for a long time- hopefully (for them) they have a strong patent position.

    Very cool app.

  4. Shai, It appears Apple has purchased a (relatively small) database of WiFi access points. Their WiFi geo-location coverage is almost non-existent by comparison with Navizon and Apple has no way to improve their coverage except by finding additional databases to purchase.

    If anything, there should be an opportunity here for Navizon, however, I have no connection with either Apple or Navizon, so I’ll just wait and see…

    Amy, You are correct that power consumption is an issue, however, it depends on how continuously you run the GPS receiver. WiFi is the big power hog at ~300mw receive and 400-700mw transmit. GSM/GPRS/3G comes second with roughly ~100mw receive and ~200mw receive. GPS is receive-only at perhaps 12mw. The power issue with GPS is if you run it in continuous update mode, that’s 12mw being consumed continuously, while the radios are only transmitting occasionally and only receiving intermittently.

  5. Shai says:

    Here’s a cute video that explains the process of finding your location using cell towers:

  6. christo930 says:

    Apple steals someone else’s idea and implements it in their software (just like what happened with Watson, a mac software app) and you say their engineering and development is “on fire”? Does that mean like burning down the house? Because that would be the only way that makes sense. Apple scares away developers by doing this. A company or even a person works hard and releases an App, hoping that it will be popular and make them money and when it works, Apple steals the idea. They have been doing this with the Mac for years and now they are doing the same thing with the phone. Pretty soon they won’t get anyone to want to develop for ether platform.

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