Bangalore: In Bangalore, where one-way streets bloom as often as the next traffic jam, Yusuf Motiwala’s guide to the city is a handy device mounted on his car’s dashboard. This isn’t a standard satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) device, but a Nokia N800 tablet with a 4-inch display. It pulls updated local maps from Google, connects to the Internet, uses both the cellphone network and GPS, and throws up accurate directions for every lane in Bangalore.
Stay connected: Yusuf Motiwala uses a Nokia N800 tablet with a 4-inch display to find his way around Bangalore. Hemant Mishra / Mint
With this gadget, says Motiwala, founder of a telecom start-up called TringMe, he now rarely gets lost, whether in Bangalore or in his native village in Gujarat.
Motiwala is a beneficiary of the swift spread of GPS mapping in India. The number of regular navigators-by-phone in India, according to research firm Canalys, will grow from 183,000 to 1.2 million by 2013. That figure may appear small compared with Japan’s 3.3 million, but it nevertheless represents a sharp and significant increase—and an exciting one. In the coming year, GPS maps will migrate into mid-range instruments, putting accurate directions into the hands of many hundreds of thousands.
Most of the interactive maps available today—from firms such as Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. and Reliance Communications Ltd’s Big Maps—are found on GPS-enabled smartphones. Of the smartphones sold in India in the September quarter, 86% came with integrated GPS, as against only 24% with such a facility a year earlier, according to Canalys.
In that same quarter, sales of GPS-equipped smartphones doubled from the previous year, to 445,000, but the prices remained steep. Thus, for GPS to grow, it had to percolate to the rest of the 550 million low- to mid-range mobile phones. That, says Daryl Chiam, an analyst at Canalys’ Singapore office, is finally beginning to happen: “The phones (with GPS navigation features) have also really started to go down in price only now.”
Nokia Oyj, which sells two out of three cellphones in India, has begun to reduce the cost of entry, with GPS-equipped phones priced at around Rs15,000. “The price point has already come down. It’s the habit that is the issue,” says D. Shivakumar, managing director for Nokia India. “More points of interest (in maps), an improved sensory experience of the phones, and voice in navigation” will, he thinks, power growth further.
Other cellphone manufacturers appear even more ambitious, keen to break the Rs10,000 barrier and trigger an even larger adoption of GPS.
Vikas Jain, business director of Indian cellphone maker Micromax Informatics Ltd, says his firm plans to launch several map-enabled phones around that price. “Once you break the price barrier, the device becomes more friendly, and people will experiment with it more,” he says. “There’s a big ecosystem of GPS applications for which the mobile is the most promising device. But...there hasn’t been traction. With those applications, your mobile is not just a GPS phone, it becomes a device for location-based services.”
But technical challenges persist. A GPS service bleeds a phone battery dry as it identifies exact coordinates—longitude and latitude points—from positioning satellites. Searching for a location from a closed room is also difficult; GPS devices do not work well indoors.
Vinay Goel, head of products at Google India, experienced this recently when he attempted through Google’s voice search to locate a restaurant in Basavanagudi, an older section of Bangalore. “If you’re driving a car and you can’t type, you can speak into the phone and get directions,” Goel says. At the time, however, he was indoors and the GPS in his high-end BlackBerry failed him. But a decade-old technology, which had been not exploited until recently, threw up accurate search results, with the location marked clearly on a map.
The answer lies in triangulation, which determines a location based on signal strength to the three nearest cellphone towers, within an accuracy margin of 200m. This isn’t quite as perfect as GPS, where locations are geo-tagged with their longitude and latitude coordinates and can be tracked within 20m. But triangulation is a robust option for low-cost phones; mobile phones with general packet radio service (GPRS) are available for prices as low as Rs3,500.
Firms such as Yulop WebSense Solutions Pvt. Ltd, Imere Technologies Pvt. Ltd, Four Interactive Pvt. Ltd (which runs Asklaila.com) and Onze Technologies India Pvt. Ltd have developed different approaches to triangulation. Onze provides guidance via SMS; a user sends Onze a message asking for an address and receives directions as well as local landmarks in a texted response. Imere uses a combination of triangulation and Internet protocol address to pinpoint a location.
SatNav Technologies, a GPS navigation equipment maker, is also experimenting with a solution on basic handsets to help track the movement of people or goods in real time using triangulation—targeted as much at managers of truck fleets as at parents monitoring their children.
SatNav’s solution is scheduled to launch in January, and it aims squarely to complement the higher-end GPS services. “If you are looking at 90% of the market, then you need to exploit cell towers,” says Amit Prasad, founder and chief executive of SatNav Technologies. “GPS will be at the top of that pyramid.”