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Pros and Cons of Location Awareness in Android

By Joe Levi March 19, 2010, 12:17 pm

One of the biggest advantages of Android over other mobile operating systems is the momentum that Google is adding to the platform, with OS updates, pushing the hardware envelope, and with quality apps.

Google has always been about advertising, and is now placing its bets on mobile advertising as well as location-aware advertising, which both go hand-in-hand. For this strategy to succeed Google needs to know your location. On Android phones this is done in two ways: via satellite-based GPS and “other” ways.

Other Ways

Android can get a pretty good idea of where you are using some fairly novel, non-satellite based sources. Typically, these “other” geo-location methods are loosely referred to as aGPS. Basically, aGPS methods allow for rough geo-location based on cell tower triangulation and network data (routers, access points, and whatnot). Of course there’s a lot more technical details behind these methods, but you get the gist of it. This type of geo-location comes in particularly handy when you don’t have a clear view of the sky, or when a GPS signal may be reduced due to urban settings. Additionally, aGPS is generally faster at initially acquiring your location than true GPS. When you combine the two you get the best of both worlds.

But therein lies the problem: do you really want Google (or anyone else for that matter) to know where you are at all times? It’s easy enough to go into your settings and turn off this feature (home, Menu, Settings, Location and security settings, uncheck both “Use wireless networks” and “Use GPS satellites”) to turn this off. But Google doesn’t want you to do this, then their advertisement will be less precise, and less valuable to the companies who advertise through them.

Location Aware Killer Apps

Google is doing everything it can to get you to keep your geo-location turned on by writing killer apps that use your location.

First and foremost, Android’s browser is “Google Gears” enabled, which (amongst other things) allows websites to communicate with the various sensors in your phone to present location-specific information (weather forecasts, traffic, restaurant options, gas prices, local businesses, etc.).

Most camera apps from the various hardware manufacturers (HTC, Motoroloa, etc.) enable geo-tagging by default (which, if you’ve never tried if before is a really cool way for you to view your photo album).

Next, Google’s Market includes various GPS aware apps, most of which have to with the maps and navigation (CoPilot, Waze, Google My Tracks, etc.) which use GPS for mapping and turn-by-turn directions.

Then Google did something radical, it offered its own Navigation app, complete with satellite photography of your route, near real-time traffic data, updated maps (without you having to download/install new maps every so often). They changed the game and upset the GPS apple cart.

But Google didn’t stop there. Google released Google Earth for Android 2.1 devices (which, in my opinion, works better and faster than the desktop version). Followed by a Google Buzz widget (to allow you to post “what’s happening” at your location, with an optional photo attached), and view what’s going on around you. Latitude (which seems to duplicate much of the Buzz features) allows you quick access to where your friends are at any given time, and now has a widget, too.

Live Wallpaper Evolved

Next came Google Maps 4.1 which adds a Live Wallpaper which shows your current location plotted on the map-style of your choice, with optional traffic data as well. Now you don’t even need to open Google Maps to see what the traffic is like.

This evolution takes Live Wallpapers from the realm of “cool novelty” to “real-world practical” over night. The ball is in the hands of 3rd party developer’s to tie location-based information, Live Wallpapers, and widgets together to make your life easier by exposing the real-time data that you’re interested in.

The only challenge that remains is ensuring location-privacy while enabling all the geo-specific bells and whistles.

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