The Data GPS

For several years, I’ve been kind of obsessed by the idea of a software and data-based GPS. I was introduced to the idea by Cyril Houri, a NYC-based entrepreneur who build a service called Navizon that works on Blackberries, iPhones, and a number of other mobile phone devices. I have Navizon on every Blackberry and iPhone in our home.

The idea behind Navizon is to map every cell tower and wireless access point (using the GPS enabled phones of its users) and then offer a data-GPS system on any device. Navizon does not require a hardware GPS. One less chip in your phone. And anyone can have geolocation services on their phone regardless of whether they have GPS hardware in their phones.

There’s another company that does something like this called Skyhook, based in Boston. I believe they only do wifi access point location, whereas Navizon does both cell towers and waps.

The reason I like this idea so much (particularly Navizon) is that it’s a peer produced database that provides a great service to all of us. Anyone that has GPS on their phones is mapping cell towers and wifi access points so that the rest of us can get geolocation on our phones when we need it. And since the database is peer produced, it will get updated when a new cell tower or wifi access point  is set up.

Yesterday this concept went mainstream when Google introduced "my location" services into their mobile google maps service. I just went to Google’s mobile maps service on my blackberry browser and updated my google maps service on my blackberry.

Now google maps puts a little blue dot on the map where I am.
I don’t need to tell google maps where I am anymore. This is a big deal. I suggest everyone who has a mobile phone that can run google maps go get this new version. Google’s "my location" service is using cell tower location, not wireless access point location, so the accuracy is a little less than Navizon and Skyhook. But I think it’s pretty good. And this comment in the Google blog post leads me to believe Google is also using peer production to update its database:

First, although accuracy and coverage may vary, both will improve over time as more and more people use Google Maps for mobile

It will be interesting to see what else google has up it’s sleeve for its "my location" services. Is there an API? Can twitter plug into this service so it can know where I am at all times? Can plug into this service so that when I visit from my phone’s browser I see what’s going on right around where I am right now?

Location based services need geolocation as a foundational element. And now the big gorilla in mapping on the web and phones has delivered geolocation. And they’d done it with a peer produced data-based GPS. Google continues to impress me. Long GOOG.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Vijay Veerachandran

    I love Google now. I was thinking about upgrading from curve to the latest one But found out Cingular charges 10 dollar for GPS services and dumped the idea. Who is gonna pay for that any more.

  2. Nick Dsvis

    The killer peer-based geo service will be real-time traffic AND radar information in my bluetooth-enabled GPS (or GPRS or EVDO like Amazon Kindle). So long as the data were secure and anonymous, I could transmit my speed and location, as well as various radar (this could also help filter false positives, since the radar would be present 24/7) points. So I could get advanced notice of traffic delays and get rerouted automatically well in advance. As car GPS becomes more prevalent (and now many good devices selling at $100-$150), we get more data points. This information could also be sold to traffic-consuming entities (radio stations, etc) for a great deal of licensing revenue.

  3. Brandon McLarty

    I am interested in how the entrepreneur that founded Navion fared. Navizon is a great service, what does Google entering the same space do to Navizon and it’s service?Here is a question for the community?What options does one (small company/entrepreneur ) have when Google enters your space?After Google bought GrandCentral, a knock-off of our 1Num service, we took a two front approach.1) W are enhancing our services and product offerings, and looking at new applications for our platform.2) We are also working our way thru the USPTO to expediate prosectution of our pending published patent application based on an ongoing infringement.

    1. fredwilson

      Its a damn good question. And one that I will think hard about and hopefully post onFred

  4. Dhru Purohit

    Fred, is your new google maps running slow? Mine is super slow.

    1. markslater

      Anil – surely what google seems to be doing is exactly that but free no? and device agnostic. Actually – if you look at where the might be headed it could be somewhat threatening to lots of business models. If they (as is being reported) succeed in their efforts related to the auction on monday, they then have the entire value chain sown up – with NO hardware. that then means ubiquitous access to Geolocation apps, peer produced ofcourse, and device independent. This even threatens the carriers. Clearly they believe the future is software and services, the plumbing and hardware can be someone else’s headache.

  5. Ho Yun

    I just installed it as well, and I’m thrilled. It’s interesting that you connect the technology with stock. I’m high on the technology, but I’m not convinced that it will be easy to tap any monetization potential from this (sort of like Facebook’s current problem). I’ve read speculation that GOOG will be able to provide more targeted location-based advertising in the future, so we’ll see.

    1. markslater

      well you can always take the inverse approach and short the networks!

  6. Peter Cranstone

    I think you have to broaden the concept a little further. First of all why it’s not just about cell tower triangulation, it’s about every way of calculating position, i.e. address, city, state, zip, GPS, Wi-Fi, Tower Triangulation, Bluetooth. All of these items are in fact data silo’s. The power comes from being able to aggregate ANY data (location) silo and then share that information with ANY web service.The one thing you notice immediately after installing the Google solution is “why can’t I share that location information with my service?” Well now the answer is you can. Your asking for a mobile client with an Open API that can aggregate “data” (regardless of type) and then share that with ANY web service such as Twitter or – Our solution enables that to happen. In addition you can display all of the information directly inside the browser rather than asking the customer to learn another user interface. On top of that we’ve also invented a way for your service i.e. Twitter or to directly brand the browser and appear “Inside” the regular menu. Our home page explains what we’ve done, and how we’ve done it and you can clearly see the example of Amazon branding inside the browser menu. The web site is and the Open API site is… so you can ask your portfolio companies to review it and verify this post. Essentially they can build a Mobile Widget that talks directly to our platform and in addition can integrate location information. We already have the Skyhook API’s so it wouldn’t be that hard to integrate the whole solution and then your customers could have some unique. Branded Twitter and directly inside the mobile browser with location support from GPS and Wi-Fi. Time frame to complete this would in the region of 90 days.Cheers,Peter

  7. Luke H

    I’m also digging the new gmaps “my location” service. I wish there was a way for me to help them improve the database, even though I don’t have gps on my phone. As far as I can tell there’s no way for me to report my actual position.

  8. Martin Dufort

    Hi Fred :I think we are on the same page. Especially interesting is the capability to detect the current cell id from within the cell phone. I tested the service on the same provider (Rogers) using two different Windows Mobile 6 devices at the exact same spot. One was working the other was not. Why ?The Google software was unable to obtain the current cell id to which the phone was connected in one of them. There is two variables at play (detect current cell id from phone, map it to known location in the area).Later – Martin

    1. Raj

      Have you installed Yahoo’s mobile app on your Blackberry. It’s pretty killer — used GPS For directions, locating businesses, etc.I really need a Yelp client for BB and life would be better.

  9. Matt McAlister

    Yahoo! Research Berkeley has done some pioneering work in this space not just by building a cell tower location service but also by opening up an API for developers to tap into the data. The service includes functions to get data for any app to use and also to update the database for the whole community. if apps agree that a particular cell ID is in zip code 94107, for example, then the ZoneTag database will offer that tag when other apps pull data from the service.more here:…see ZoneTags and TagMaps

    1. Martin Dufort

      Matt: Is this the same thing as FireEagle ? I would really like to get an early preview of that service if available

      1. Mor

        Not the same thing as FireEagle, Martin. Of course, it is related…You are welcome to go to the FireEagle page and sign up – we’ll get you in as soon as possible!