Notes On Peripatetic Computing

While traipsing through the countryside, I have had a number of opportunities to actually think about the way mobile devices (and data services) can enhance our lives a bit, especially where it concerns navigating meatspace.

For instance, take GPS devices, one of the big-ticket consumer items in 2006. A year ago you'd find them on sale, sure, but at twice the price and taking up as much shelf space as, say, travel adapters. This year, it's impossible to put your foot through the door of any electronics retailer without bumping into a bunch of display cases' worth of them.

The drive in GPS take-up has resulted in the usual off-shoot of market economy: demand forced suppliers to compete, lowering prices to the point where you can now find small, cheap and pretty damn accurate GPS chip-sets in just about anything you can carry with you, and I have watched as (over the past two years or so), a sort of "location frenzy" swept across the gadget sub-space and washed upon the shores of the mobile industry, with the result that more and more location-based functionality is being gradually grafted in (the current exponent being the Nokia/N95, incidentally made public a few weeks ago).

And, of course, there are gimmicks like the upcoming PSP GPS add-on, which seem rather pointless (can you imagine taking the trouble to pop in the right UMD, assemble the contraption and carry it around? and how do they handle map updates?).

But, as it turns out, the K610i and the Pearl are more than able to help you find your way - provided, of course, that you care to think a bit. Neither of them provides a full-blown, over-the-top guidance algorithm with prompts by John Cleese, but they'll prove surprisingly useful.

During last year's summer vacation, I used Christian Streng's excellent MGMaps on a K610i to get around. As it happens, Google/Maps has pretty good coverage of Portuguese roads and street names, but Christian's app can do GPS tracking (not routing, just pinpointing your position and tracking your route), so I paired it with a borrowed Bluetooth GPS and played the co-pilot with consummate ease, setting waypoints and figuring out alternate routes.

When it came to actually finding our way to a new destination, however, things were a bit trickier - searching for town and street names was useless.

One thing I can't understand is why Google Maps's search is still so hopeless - despite the wealth of naming (and even POI data) that Google's map database contains, it can seldom find anything in Portugal other than district capitals. So, regardless of whether I fire up Earth, the web-based Maps, Google's own J2ME application for it, or MGMaps, the only reliable way to find things is by (rather appropriately) rolling my eyeballs all over the map.

This has, so far, been more than enough for my purposes, since (unlike 90% of the people who are slurping GPS devices off the shelves in droves), I have this thing about orientation, which I can summarize as follows -

No amount of assisted guidance will prevent you from making a fool of yourself if you don't do minimal planning for your trips.

i.e., you are much better off knowing where you are going. Placing blind trust on any sort of map (and failing to heed obvious things like that DETOUR sign before the bridge) won't help you one whit if you aren't prepared to use your brains, and I've had the occasion to witness some comical situations along the lines of "wait a minute, there should be a road here", or "this thing wants me to steer into those bushes over there", followed by protracted swearing and much poking of keypads (or touch-screens) with furrowed eyebrows.

Yes, GPS maps are usually more-or-less up to date (with varying degrees of paranoia), but even with built-in GPRS modems and OTA updates (which now include traffic information if you're lucky enough to have the right combination of GPS equipment, service provider and territory), blind trust on anything tends to dull your wits.

But getting back to my personal experience, It is considerably annoying to notice, for instance, that Google's own J2ME application can actually provide correct point-to-point routes through Lisbon (or Faro, or Cascais, etc.) streets (provided you point at the start and end points), and yet it can't figure out the street names.

In contrast, the Pearl's built-in Maps application (which also works with a Bluetooth GPS) can find most streets in Lisbon correctly now (a few months ago, there was no data for the whole of Europe), but can't yet help me route my way out of a paper bag. I expect this will change soon (I'm told US and Canada folk have a very different experience).

The main point, however, is that the convergence of the mobile phone with a GPS is now a practical, tangible reality (besides all those Japanese gimmicks we kept reading about for years), and that, regardless of the actual application you use or its shortcomings, most of them have gotten the basics right: you download the map data over-the-air (the Blackberry's maps are vector-based, and thus much faster), which saves storage and ensures they're up-to-date, you can delegate route-making to a server (which can run much more complex routing algorithms that take into account traffic information and other factors), and, in some instances, you can overlay your own data.

Yes, there will be data tariff costs involved and the screens are still tiny, but this is about extending the reach of your phone into both physical and virtual spaces, not about putting a GPS online and making it fit into your pocket - we're not talking about full-blown GPS features yet (Google's J2ME app doesn't display longitude or latitude, and neither does RIM's), but there's some serious potential here, and I'm not just thinking about Geotagging.

The Quick-And-Dirty Blackberry-to-Google (Web) Maps Hack

Anyway, besides rambling on, I also have a bit of practical advice. Besides recommending that you check out any of the above applications, I'd like to leave a little hint for those folk out there carrying a Pearl who need to send a particular location to someone else who isn't using a Blackberry.

Go to the Maps application, click "Email location", and look at the URL it generates (these URLs are only usable with the Maps application, as far as I can tell):

To turn it into a usable URL for non-Blackberry folk, just remove the lat, lon and z parameters and point it to Google/Maps instead, adding a q (for query) and a comma:,-9.15332

It's that simple. You can of course keep the original link as well, but it won't be much use to anyone without a Blackberry.

Now if only they could all get along and agree on a standard for SMSing location URIs and invoking a map application on a phone (no, you can't do that with Google's stuff yet).

Hmmm. Now there's something I'd like to see someone standardizing and turning into a practical reality.