Google is set on Wednesday to launch a new feature in its Google Maps for Mobile program that automatically sets your location even in phones that lack a global positioning system (GPS) device.
Until now, if you were in a cafe and you wanted to search for a nearby photocopy shop, you had to type in an address to set your location before Google Maps for Mobile could provide local listings.
The beta feature triangulates your approximate location based on nearby cell towers so you don't have to type in your address. Given that less than 15 percent of mobile phones are GPS-enabled, this feature will be helpful to many people.
"One of the pain points in mobile is having to key in so many characters," said Greg Sterling, principal at Sterling Market Intelligence. "This saves you from having to type 'sushi San Francisco,' and you can just type 'sushi.'"
The new My Location feature is launching in beta to get it into the hands of consumers faster, said Steve Lee, product manager for Google Maps for Mobile. The performance of the technology, which was developed in-house, will improve the more people use it, he said.
"We're creating a database of cell tower locations and that database is built from people using Google Maps for Mobile," Lee said.
Sterling said the new feature has been "pretty consistently available" in his testing of the service.
The My Location feature "complements" GPS functionality, because it works indoors, doesn't drain the battery as much as GPS does, and is much faster (a few seconds compared with what can be a few minutes on GPS), according to Lee.
However, GPS is more accurate; GPS can be off by a few meters while My Location will be within 10 city blocks, on average, he said.
The Google Maps for Mobile software is a downloadable program and it is preinstalled on some phones. The new feature will be available on most smart phones, including the BlackBerry, new Nokia Symbian devices, many Windows Mobile devices (except the Motorola Q, Samsung Blackjack, and Palm Treo 700W).
Google Maps for Mobile is available on the iPhone, but the My Location feature isn't yet.
Google Maps for Mobile doesn't have ads, but the new My Location feature will make geographically targeted advertising easy when Google is ready to push ads to mobile users.
"Clearly we think location technology will make advertising more relevant to users and advertisers in the future," said Lee. "So, it's something we're looking at."
For now, there don't seem to be any consumer privacy issues from My Location. The Google Maps for Mobile program does not log a user's name, phone number, or other identifiable information; it just records the location of cell towers, according to Lee. "This information is completely anonymous and aggregated on Google's side."