Navigate the world with personal global positioning systems
July 17, 1998
by James Connolly
(IDG) -- Global Positioning System (GPS) technology lets guys like me dream of the day when we will never have to ask for directions.
GPS can eliminate even that occasional need for directions. A navigation technology that relies on a network of satellites, GPS made its name helping pilots fly planes, mariners plot their courses and geologists map the Earth. Now, it's moving to the next level of practicality: helping executives get to that sales meeting with a new client in a strange town.
Looking for GPS technology that could appeal to an executive, I found what amounted to a 75% solution: The raw technology is there, but, I thought, "If only it were a little easier to use... If only it could... "
Dozens of companies sell GPS equipment, including handheld consumer items, vehicle-mounted tracking systems and marine and aviation products.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has estimated that GPS sales will reach $8 billion in 2000.
That terminal with the 4-in. color screen sitting between the front seats of your Hertz rental car really can help you find your way right to the front door of your next appointment. Hertz began offering the Magellan technology, which blends GPS with what Magellan calls a dead-reckoning capability, as an option at selected airports in 1995. It is now available at 50 U.S. locations.
You select your destination — whether a street address or a public building — by toggling through menu choices. It takes a minute or less to enter an address and have NeverLost map out the best route on the screen.
A mechanical voice guides you along the highlighted route, offering prompts such as, "Turn left on Route 1, one-quarter mile ahead" while you keep your eyes on the road.
NeverLost is accurate enough to earn the title, "Almost NeverLost." It was on the money as long as I was on major roads, but it got confused when I drove through a small seacoast town with narrow, winding streets.
A NeverLost-style system installed in your new car or as an add-on from a retailer might cost about $1,200 to $1,800.
Garmin International, Inc., Olathe, Kan.; (913) 397-8200
Price: $369 (street); $531 (list)
The GPS III was designed for recreational use, but I took it on a couple of business trips, and it proved helpful.
At 9 ounces and 5 inches long, this handheld device is compact and easy to use. Built-in maps of the U.S. show your location with relation to the most direct route to your destination or to landmarks such as state highways.
GPS III is best at finding locations you have already visited and marked. So you can use it for tasks like plotting a return trip to your hotel. When it comes to finding a new location, if you don't already know the GPS coordinates (not likely), you typically will be able to mark only the general neighborhood using the maps.
GPS works best outdoors, but the readings that the GPS III and the Magellan 2000XL offer inside a moving car are fine for the business traveler.
Computer buyers may be accustomed to more money buying more power. With the GPSs we tried, more money buys ease of use. The $200 difference between the Magellan and Garmin devices is reflected in how much more intuitive it is to use the Garmin and features such as the built-in maps.
The GPS 2000XL, only about an inch longer than the GPS III and comparable in terms of processing speed and accuracy, eventually did the job, particularly in terms of backtracking to the hotel. But the learning curve could be measured in hours.
Our GPS 2000XL came with a data module that ties it into a CD-ROM-based map system on a notebook PC. This helped me get around but, again, setup and use was a challenge, and the documentation was weak.
How it works
GPS technology has its roots in U.S. Department of Defense programs but now thrives in the commercial sector. Twenty-four high-tech satellites orbit the Earth at 12,000 miles, continuously beaming their locations and the time toward the surface. GPS receivers collect the data from at least three satellites and use an algorithm to calculate the receiver's latitude and longitude for two-dimensional readings. To get three-dimensional accuracy (latitude, longitude and altitude), you need signals from at least four satellites.
GPS in your future
Just work with GPS today, and talk to the vendors, and you can see the next few steps that will advance it beyond a 75% solution.
Connolly is Computerworld's department editor, technology reviews/Review Center.
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