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New Google Maps for Mobile tracks your position using cell phone towers

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Google released last week a new version of its Google Maps for Mobile application. The release, as with many of Google’s products, is designated “beta,” a label used for software that is still being actively tested and not yet released to the public.

I’ve read about mobile maps applications before, including the earlier Google versions, but I never bothered trying it out because I don’t travel much. In fact my daily travel is such a routine I can tell you what size of potholes are located in which part of the highways in Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu Cities.

Google Maps for Mobile GOOGLE MAPS FOR MOBILE. A satellite photo of Fuente Osmena rotunda as seen through the Google Maps for mobile application running in my Sony Ericsson K750i. Click on photo to enlarge.

But what caught my interest in last week’s announcement is a new feature in Google Maps: it can now plot your location using the cellphone towers of your mobile network. The application then displays a blue dot showing a bigger light blue circle to display your approximate location. That feature is called My Location.

Previously, you can plot your locations in mapping applications if you have a GPS (global position system) device or module. With the new Google application, the software can plot your location via triangulation of your position using the cellphone towers that connect your phone to your mobile network.

Phone models

The My Location feature, however, works only in more recent phone models. I tried it with the Sony Ericsson K750i and it didn’t work, which I expected. I tried it in the K800i and it still doesn’t work. For the feature to work, your phone must be reporting cells it is using. You can check in the application itself by going to Help, then About then read the settings listed there. If the screen says “myl: N/A,” it means My Location will not work with your device.

I don’t know on which phones the feature will work but I suspect it will work with the Sony Ericsson K660i, a fabulous phone that’s making me drool.

I don’t know if Google will ever allowing you to share locations but it would be a good application. If it is able to get position data without the application running (but is is this even possible?), it would be helpful in tracking the general area of the unit when it gets stolen or lost.

Sharing location information is also helpful for families. I, for one, don’t mind sharing my location info with my wife. If something happens to me, virtual knock on digital wood, I’d like her to be able to track my general location. I know I shouldn’t do it but I also know I’ll have the urge to track my sons when they are already in high school or college.

Tracing a cellphone’s location

Locating a person using his or her cellphone is already possible with both Smart and Globe. The two companies have person finder services that triangulate the phone’s location based on cell towers.

The accuracy of positions in the mobile version of Google Maps, according to the company, depends on how wide the telecom cell is. Google said areas with denser mobile towers will have more accurate position data.

An article on Smart’s person finder service earlier said that in urban areas, cellsites are within 1 kilometer of each other. In the provinces, the average distance ranges from 1.5 to 3 kilometers. I don’t know whether this is still the case right now considering the rapid expansion of the Smart network.

But a few months back, I asked my wife to get my location via WIS when I was near Queensland, a motel near the reclamation area. When she checked my location, the system said that I was near White Gold, which is a department store about 50 meters away. It’s pretty close. (After I wrote about this in my column, an editor “gently” scolded me, saying it will give wives an idea on how to track their gallivanting husbands.)

If you’ve been able to get My Location working in your phone, do send me word. I’d like to know how accurate the position data is in the Philippines.

But even if I couldn’t get My Location working, I still enjoyed using the Google Maps mobile application. It is as easy to use as the Gmail for Mobile application, which I consider the gold standard in third-party mobile software.

Installation

Navigating maps and zooming into details is easily done in the application. In the photo above, you can see the application zooming into a satellite image of Fuente Osmeña rotunda.

The free application works in most Java-enabled phones, all color BlackBerry devices, Windows Mobile devices with Windows Mobile 2003, 5.0 and above, and Symbian Series 60 3rd edition devices.

Installation is very easy. Just go to www.google.com/gmm in your phone to download the application. The screen will prompt you to download the correct version for your phone. I tried and had it working in a K750i and K800i using a Smart connection. I tried it with a colleague’s K800i using a Globe account but the application couldn’t connect to the Internet to download map data. She tried it a few more times in a couple of days and still couldn’t get it to work.

There still isn’t a map for Cebu but you can choose satellite view to zoom into areas in the metro. The quality and sharpness of the images are scaled-down versions of those you get using the PC application or the website.

Here’s a video introduction to My Location posted in the Google Maps for Mobile website:

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By Max Limpag

Max is a journalist and blogger based in Cebu City, Philippines. He is co-founder of the journalism start-up InnoPub Media.