GPS and mapping apps hit the spot

A decade after their fixed-line colleagues, operators of mobile phone networks are starting to run into the problem of the "last...

A decade after their fixed-line colleagues, operators of mobile phone networks are starting to run into the problem of the "last mile" - but solutions were on hand at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes last week.

The last mile of cable between the telephone exchange and the customer's premises was a problem for competing fixed-line operators throughout the 1990s.

For seven years now, mobile operators have been talking about - and sometimes selling - services that can identify where customers are calling from, based on transmissions from their mobile phone, and deliver customised content according to their location.

Such services could be used to advise them of a local cinema showing their chosen film, or the address of the nearest restaurant meeting their criteria for price and type of food.

French network operator Orange showed a preview version of a map and route-finder pack it will launch next quarter.

The pack contains a bundle of software for smart phones running either the Symbian operating system or the phone version of Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system, and a GPS receiver which can communicate with the smart phone via a Bluetooth short-range radio interface.

Once the software is installed and the handset associated with the GPS receiver, the pack can be used to find your way to any address in France simply by typing it on the handset.

Similar software already exists for PDAs, storing the maps in the PDA's memory, but smart phones tend to be lower-powered and not to have enough free memory to store maps for a whole country.

Orange's system gets around this by sending the phone's location and desired destination to a central server over the mobile phone network. The server then determines the best route and returns a series of maps and instructions to reach the destination. The instructions can be displayed on the phone's screen, or spoken aloud to make navigating while driving safer.

Planung Transport Verkehr of Germany demonstrated a navigation guide allowing users of Nokia's 3650 or 6600 phones, and of Siemens' SX1 phone, to locate WLan hot spots through which to connect their computer to the internet.

The software does not magically sniff out the hotspots - it requires a network operator to provide the location information as a service - but it does solve one of the major drawbacks of WLan as a complement to mobile phone service.

Navigation Technologies software is a key part of Orange's pack, and will also feature in a service being developed by T-info, a subsidiary of Germany's T-Mobile, for tourists visiting German cities.

The service sends walking directions to mobile phones to help visitors find their way around an unfamiliar city, complete with photographs of open spaces or complex street intersections with the route superimposed on them.

UK company MapInfo demonstrated the Operator Assisted Information Service, designed to add mapping information to the directory operators see. A future update will allow operators to send maps of local services by MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) for an additional fee.

M-Spatial launched a software platform, building on its MapWay suite of software already used to provide walking directions on mobile information services such as Vodafone live! or O2 Active.

The system can be easily integrated by creators of other mobile information services to provide directions or other location information, its inventors say, because it is accessed via simple URLs (uniform resource locators).

The existing crop of location-based information services could certainly do with a little help.

Last week, Orange's online movie guide for Cannes repeatedly said "There are no cinemas near your current location," although two were clearly visible a couple of hundred metres from the Palais des Congrès.

Hopefully, that function will sorted out before Hollywood's finest arrive for the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Peter Sayer writes for IDG News Service

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