Expert Advice: Mobile Computing on the Rise

July 1, 2012  - By

This discussion of current trends in location-enabled mobile devices takes as its foundation the different operating systems (OSs) for those devices. Why? For GPS/GNSS hardware units to be useful, there have to be software applications — apps — also riding on those units. Apps are totally dependent on the operating system. An analogy is that the operating system is the foundation of a house and the app is the house itself. The type of foundation you have drives what type of house you can build.

For example, no one is going to write an app today for Palm OS because that OS is essentially dead. While that’s an obvious one, a not-so-obvious one is Microsoft Windows Mobile. Most apps written for professional users are written in Windows Mobile, but Microsoft hasn’t done a good job of communicating its intentions regarding Windows Mobile, so users and developers think Microsoft may abandon it.

On the other hand, Android is gaining so much momentum. Will developers rewrite their apps from Windows Mobile for Android? Or for Apple’s iOS? Can they afford to? Can they afford not to? If they don’t, that would mean that fewer professional apps will be available for Android and iOS users. Will that mean Windows Mobile will be the OS for professional GPS/GNSS users, and conversely, will Android/iOS be the OS for consumer-level GPS/GNSS users? Taking it to a practical conclusion, according to the type of mobile computing device that you purchase, what kind of location application will you be able to use?

Photo: Apple

Smartphones. Apple iOS’s new Maps app will likely be the largest scale crowd-sourced app ever introduced.


PNDs Out-Smarted

For the past decade, GPS personal navigation device (PND) sales have burned white-hot. In 2007, Garmin experienced double- and triple-digit growth, selling more than 10 million units. TomTom grew from zero to hero and sold more than 9.5 million units in that same year. During that brief golden era, every consumer electronics company who was anyone took a stab at introducing a PND to get a piece of the action. As unlikely as it seems, Garmin and TomTom stayed on top, fighting off consumer electronic giants like Sony, Panasonic, Hewlett-Packard, and Philips, all orders of magnitude larger. PNDs ruled the GPS world during that era.

Credit: GPS World

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At the height of that period of explosive GPS PND growth, Apple introduced a new generation of smartphone, the iPhone, in January 2007. At that time, there were approximately 17 million smartphones on the market. Nokia with its Symbian operating system led the pack at 63 percent of worldwide market share, Blackberry was the rising smartphone of choice, while Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system captured 18 percent. Google’s Android operating system had not yet debuted.

It’s amazing how a mass-market technology, so personal to us all, can change so quickly. Today, Google’s Android operating system dominates the smartphone market (roughly144.4 million smartphones were sold in Q1 alone of 2012, according to Gartner Research) with a 56.1 percent share. Apple’s iOS follows at 22.9 percent; Symbian (Nokia) has fallen from leader to bit player at 8.6 percent, and keeps company in the low rungs with RIM/BlackBerry (6.9 percent), Samsung’s Bada (2.7 percent), and Microsoft Windows (1.9 percent).

The trend is clear. Android and iOS are cleaning up at the expense of all the others. Is it any coincidence that these two are the ones making the most of their maps and nav? More on this in a moment.

By the way: every one of the 144.4 million smartphones that shipped in the first three months of 2012, no matter what operating system it ran on, carried a GPS receiver inside, typically a chipset from Broadcom, CSR/SiRF, u-blox, Qualcomm, or Texas Instruments. That spells trouble for Garmin and TomTom. Google and Apple are doing to Garmin and TomTom what Microsoft did to NetScape with Internet Explorer.

Even with GPS PND prices at an all-time low, Google’s Navigator, with high-quality, PND-like turn-by-turn street navigation, is included on Android smartphones free of charge. Apple is following suit. Just last month, Apple introduced the Maps app for turn-by-turn street navigating as well as real-time traffic information. With more than 100 million iPhones behaving like traffic sensors, Apple’s Maps app will likely be the largest scale crowd-sourced app ever introduced.

What does this mean to Garmin and TomTom? The numbers don’t lie. In February 2012, TomTom reported a 40 percent decrease in GPS PND sales for Q4 2011 compared to Q4 2010.



Tablet Computers

For another wild ride, take a look at the tablet-computer market. The tablet has been around for many years. I remember playing with them in the 1990s when they were horribly expensive ($3,000–$5,000). The price, a limited outdoor-viewable display, and power usage all combined to squash unit sales. Only a few manufacturers such as Fujitsu had the determination to stay. That all changed in 2010 when Apple introduced the iPad.

Prior to the iPad rollout, tablet computer sales were limited primarily to business users. Healthcare provided a particular arena for Fujitsu and others to focus on, and there were a few other markets that were not very price-sensitive, and so receptive to the tablet. The iPad blew away that $3–5K price point (iPad 2, $629) and brought the tablet experience to the average consumer. The result? Roughly 67 million units sold since its introduction, far surpassing all tablet computer unit sales in history in just two years. Apple hit a sweet spot, for sure.

The iPad catalyzed the tablet industry for two reasons:

  • It opened the eyes of the consumer to the applications of a tablet computer.
  • It drove the price-point expectation of all tablets down.

Of course, the iPad has its limitations. It runs Apple’s proprietary operating system, iOS, so you are limited to the number of apps written for that platform. It also lacks horsepower to run more challenging programs that an Intel or AMD-based computer can breeze through. From a GPS/GNSS perspective, certain models of the iPad sport a GNSS chipset (from Broadcom) similar to mobile phones; however, because of the way the GPS functionality is designed into the system, accuracy is limited to a few meters at best. Power GPS/GNSS users would love it if Apple would implement serial port profile (SPP) in its Bluetooth software. Then, GPS/GNSS users could attach any Bluetooth-compliant GPS/GNSS receiver they like, even RTK-capable receivers for centimeter-level accuracy. But Apple doesn’t seem interested.

As in the mobile-phone market, Google is making a strong tablet play with its Android operating system. Google’s device-agnostic operating system is attracting tablet hardware makers in droves with iPad-like tablet computers, notably Samsung Galaxy (with GPS) and Amazon Kindle Fire (no GPS). Also, there’s an interesting link between mobile phones and tablets. Gartner reports that 40 percent of user apps run on both mobile phones and a corresponding tablet computer. This is significant because the operating system may well drive the tablet purchase. For example, a person with an iPhone is more likely to buy an iPad than a Samsung Galaxy, which runs Google Android.

However, Android has not achieved the dominance in the tablet computer space that it has in smartphones. iOS (iPad) held 67 percent market share in 2011, falling to 61 percent in 2012,but still retaining the pole position. Android is a strong second with 29 percent in 2011, rising to 32 percent in 2012, according to Gartner. No other operating system even comes close.

Gartner forecasts show that Android will eventually approach iOS in market share, and my guess is that it will overtake iOS within five years. Apple’s proprietary system will catch up to it. While GPS/GNSS chipsets aren’t as widely integrated in tablets as they are in mobile phones, that will change as GPS/GNSS use becomes even more ubiquitous. Further, there are plenty of ways to add GPS to a non-GPS model via Bluetooth, PCMCIA, and USB.

Android supports Bluetooth SPP, or a derivation of it, so you can connect any Bluetooth SPP-compliant GPS receiver that you like and not be limited to the receiver chipset the tablet engineer decided to design into the system.

]Although PDAs have an embedded receiver, they are lower-precision systems, in the 1- to 5-meter range, largely due to poor antennas. For higher precision requirements, these are used as field data collectors connected to an external antenna and/or a high-precision GPS/GNSS receiver.Handheld PDAs

Handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) were all the rage 10 years ago when Compaq Computer Corp. introduced the iPAQ H3100 running Microsoft’s PPC2000 (Pocket PC) operating system, the precursor to Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system. The iPAQ made a strong run through 2009, with the last models running Windows Mobile 6 before smartphones became powerful enough to negate the purpose of the PDA.

While we probably will never see another introduction of a new iPAQ-branded PDA, it was a useful device and an inexpensive handheld for interfacing to GPS/GNSS receivers. Albeit a niche market, there’s still a demand for such handhelds for field data collection.

According to the nature of capitalism, where there’s a demand, suppliers will show up. Since the iPAQ has faded, and smartphones aren’t yet well-suited as field data-collection devices, a new breed of semi-rugged and rugged PDAs has emerged in the past year from small, niche-oriented companies. Examples include the SXPad from Geneq, Juno 3 series from Trimble, and the Mesa/Rampage 6 from Juniper Systems/SDG Systems.

These devices, with GPS/GNSS receivers embedded, are not built for the average consumer. Their prices are higher — but coming down — and they are more rugged; some are water-resistant, some waterproof.

In a nutshell, PDAs went professional, targeting organizations that need maximum data-collection productivity from field personnel. Although they have an embedded receiver, they are lower-precision systems, in the 1- to 5-meter range, largely due to poor antennas. For higher precision requirements, these are used as field data collectors connected via Bluetooth to a high-precision GPS/GNSS receiver.

Although the professional PDA market is not immune to the operating-system wars we’ve seen in mobile phones and tablet computers, it’s a bit stickier. Professional data-collection apps have been written almost exclusively around the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system. These niche software programs are written for relatively small audiences (compared to the mass-market apps on smartphones), and it can be economically tough to justify porting the apps to iOS or Android. Therefore, the professional PDA market has been slower in adopting iOS and Android.

Microsoft hasn’t helped the cause. It stopped certifying new products with the Windows Mobile operating system, creating confusion in the user community. Is Microsoft exiting the mobile device business? Not according to the company. It appears that it has split the mobile device business into two operating systems. Smartphones will run Windows Phone, and other mobile devices will run Windows Embedded Handheld, which is compatible with Windows Mobile.

The problem, the confusion, and the frustration come from the fact that the Windows Phone operating system is not compatible with Windows Mobile (or Windows Embedded Handheld). Microsoft split the market between smartphones and other Microsoft-driven mobile devices. Given Gartner’s research that 40 percent of users’ smartphone apps also run on a tablet device, this means that Microsoft is going to either change that dynamic or suffer the consequences.

No matter which direction mobile devices take, be it phone, handheld, or tablets running Android, iOS, Windows, or something we haven’t yet seen, embedded GPS/GNSS functionality will remain the centerpiece of location technology in all mobile devices. Even more exciting are the new GNSS signals and constellations in the next five years that will bring unprecedented accuracy to all mobile devices, driving the development of a tremendous number of new apps to exploit the improving accuracy.

Eric Gakstatter is contributing editor for survey at GPS World magazine and the editor of Geospatial Solutions. He has spent the past 20 years in the GPS survey/mapping industry, using many brands of GPS equipment and software. He is a non-partisan advocate for the GPS user community, and a frequent speaker at user and technical conferences.

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About the Author: Eric Gakstatter

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.