GPS on mobiles - what is it good for?

GPS seems to be becoming more and more of a standard feature on high-end mobile phones. I've had it for a while on my Nokia N95, and now N96. The new iPhone 3G now has it, and it's also included on some of the mobile phones from HTC, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. My question is: what is it really good for?

The assumption of the mobile phone companies so far has been that GPS is for location-sensitive services. That is, maps, directions, and local search. I've done all three with my N96, but only very rarely, and even then usually just to test it out, rather than having a real need.

This is partly because I usually know where I am, where I'm going, and how to get there. The other part of the problem though is that when I do need this information desperately, for instance, I'm lost and late for a meeting, the technology just isn't fast enough. When you're lost, you're stressed, and trying to get yourself back on track as quickly as possible. So getting your phone out and tapping through the menus just feels like it's more likely to slow you down than speed you up. On the N96, for instance, it can take up to a minute to get a GPS 'fix', during which time it helps if you stand still. Plus, it can take longer still in built-up areas, which of course are where you're most likely to get lost.

Some of this is solvable - and perhaps the iPhone GPS experience is a bit better - but I still wonder how likely it is that we'll all be reaching for our phones when we get lost in the future.

What about location-sensitive searches then? This means doing stuff like searching for the name of a nearby location, or asking to be shown the closest pubs, train stations or hotels. The Nokia phones enable this from within the Maps application, and Google recently added it to their mobile search interface (if you have certain types of phone and have installed the Google Gears plugin). The Nokia implementation works reasonably well, including categories like casinos, museums, sports grounds and amusement parks. Still though, I've hardly used it.

I think this because it's rare that I'll be making a decision about where to go whilst only having my mobile to hand. If I want to pick a tourist attraction to visit, I'll do it on my laptop, before I set off. And if I was out and about, and wanted to find somwhere to go, I'm unlikely to do it based just upon its name, which is all Nokia gives you. You don't even get a website address, which would be useful to say, check the place was open, and that it still exists. There are some things you might search for, where you're only interested in the nearest one. I'm thinking Post Offices, post boxes, cash machines and toilets. These are partly supported by the N96, but the quality of the data is variable, as these are things which often get moved, closed down, or are simply out-of-order.

What about directions then? Well, I don't drive, but anyone I know who does, and uses GPS navigation, has a dedicated device (like a TomTom), rather than uses their mobile. Maybe the mobile phone could take up this role, but there might also be good reasons for keeping them seperate (having a bigger screen on the GPS device, being attachable to the windscreen, and conserving the battery life on your mobile). So that just leaves directions for when you're on foot. I've tried this a few times, but got frustrated with the small screen, and the map and routing information being aimed at the motorist, and so ended up relying on environmental information like road signs, street maps, or asking people...

With all this, you might think I barely use GPS on my phone. But in fact, I have found a use for it, and that's a more reflexive use-case of tracking where I've been. You see, I've recently taken up walking in the Peak District around Manchester, and tracking where you've been adds an extra element of enjoyment. It allows you to, for instance, see maps of your walk:

...to see the 'vital stats' of your walk, including total distance and average speed:

Start time: 22.11.08 13:35, Duration: 16min 49s, Distance: 1.53km, Speed (average): 5.47 km/h, Speed (max): 7.92 km/h, Pace (average): 10m 59s per km, Pace (max): 7min 34s per km, Altitude (min): 152.5 m, Altitude (max): 188.5m.

...plus you can even see a graph of your altitude along the walk:

...as well as geotagged photos, which can be viewed on a map on your phone and uploaded to Flickr:

The thing is, all this is still a bit complicated to achieve. To track my walks, I'm using Nokia Sports Tracker, which isn't included on the N96 by default, and so has to be downloaded. Once installed, you can upload your tracks to the online service (see my profile). To view your route on Google Maps (see my profile there), you have to export as KML (the Google Earth format), then transfer to your computer, and upload to Google. To geotag your photos and upload them to Flickr, you have to first enable the geotagging feature (which can be found in Camera > Options > Settings), and then ideally have a GPS-using application running in the background, and then set up the 'Share Online' feature to work with your Flickr account.

So this is all a bit niche at the moment, but it shows you what can be done if you're prepared to fiddle a bit. When I've showed these kinds of features off to friends, they've all been impressed and have suggested they'd like to do it too. My question is, should mobile phone designers be making more of these kind of uses of GPS location info? Will Sports Tracker ever be used by more than the handful of people who currently seem to have profiles on the site? Will we ever get to the the point where we expect all our digital photos to have co-ordinates attached to them, in the same way that we now expect and rely on our photos have a date and time stamp?

Let me know what you think...

By the way, as an aside, most online maps seem awful for coverage of paths in the countryside, so I've also been uploading my 'traces' to Open Street Map, to help improve their already pretty decent coverage of paths, bridleways and cycleways.