Benefon, one of the GSM pioneers, was the first handset maker to marry cellular with GPS in response to the European Union’s Mobile Rescue Phone (MORE) project during the mid-1990s. The result of this ambitious effort was the launch of the Benefon Esc! phone in late 1999 and Benefon Track device in 2000.
The Esc! phone was splash-proof and featured a large, grayscale LCD. It allowed users to load maps onto the phone to trace their position and movement, and even to call or send their coordinates via SMS to a list of set numbers by setting an “Emergency Key.” Interestingly, it also featured a “Friend Find” service, whereby users with Esc! handsets could track each other’s locations directly on their handset display.
The first GPS phone launched in 1999
It was evident by the late 1990s that by harnessing the power of location services in wireless handsets, GPS could radically alter the smartphone makeup. However, for that to actually happen, the industry had to overcome a few major stumbling blocks. For a start, GPS was a line-of-sight satellite technology while cellular was not. Then there were problems regarding indoor reception of GPS signals, which was inherent in satellite communications. A user couldn’t rely on the phone’s GPS to get around inside buildings.
Handset manufacturers like Ericsson and Nokia were initially reluctant to embed GPS circuitry into mobile phones, citing time-to-market issues and the added cost. A more crucial challenge related to lowering power consumption in the GPS circuitry in order to integrate it into mobile devices. The complexity and footprint of GPS chip, as well as the need for a separate antenna, further complicated a successful integration onto the mobile phone platform.
Then, there came this marvel of system integration that crystallized a new direction for cellular networks’ liaison with server-assisted location services. In May 2000, J-Phone, the first wireless operator to release a phone with a built-in camera, launched the world’s first location-based mapping service that displayed interactive maps within a web micro-browser. GPS met location met mobile Internet!
J-Phone’s J-Navi service was a pioneering effort to merge GPS into the handset
Japan’s second-largest mobile phone operator launched the J-Navi service, letting users in Tokyo enter a phone number, address or landmark, and then search the area within a 500-meter radius. This made it possible to find the subway station nearest to a particular shop, or a particular kind of restaurant within walking distance of an office building.
Most important, users of the service could download a full-color map. At the time of its launch, J-Navi was expected to handle around 100,000 hits per day, but on its third day of operation, it already had 1.6 million users. Searching was free, but users paid for the data transport costs, so in practice, it cost about 4 cents for a location search.
In the meantime, specialized chipmakers continued to improve the accuracy and availability of the GPS technology. The new circuitry was also able to gradually trim the GPS power for use in cellular phones. By late 2000s, smartphones had GPS systems on-board, and with location-aware Internet services, they were helping people to get from point A to point B.
Smartphone opened the floodgates of location-centric innovation
Google’s initiative of free turn-by-turn navigation for smartphones brought a lot of momentum to the smartphone industry. When used with a smartphone, the software sends coordinates to a server over the phone’s wireless Internet connection to grab mapping data. Maps are also stored on the handset’s SD memory card in some cases.
That way, directions keep coming when a user can’t get cellular reception, so long as he or she is still getting a GPS signal. Google’s Navigation app was probably one of the best in the lot; it took up almost no space on the phone because everything was in the cloud.
Content of this article is based on excerpts from the book Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics.