As a non iPhone user, I almost missed the news from Steve Job’s Mac World address that the iPhone would be receiving new firmware.  Because I don’t own the device, I have no need to update the firmware, but reading this official Google blog post, something caught my eye.

Then over the next few days others commented on how the iPhone was to get an update to allow the radio stack to pass cell-IDs to the OS and hence allow the My Location feature to work…..this is significant even if it was dressed up as a firmware upgrade.  

For months now, I have sniggered as I passed those iPhone displays in O2 shops (see picture at left) that shows the Google map application on a large screen in the window.  As we all know, the iPhone does not have 3G OR GPS so the mapping feature seemed a bit of fantasy.

As I have blogged previously the iPhone has a user friendly interface so a mapping application with an automated location element on an iPhone is worth mentioning.  Indeed, the interesting stats via the about iPhone traffic (On Christmas Day Google saw more hits from iPhones than any other device) proves that by pre-loading the iPhone with a Google search, Google Maps and YouTube bookmarks on a device that has a good user interface can only help drive the stats up on a day when many of these new devices were being unwrapped and provisioned for the first time.

What is also interesting is the announcement from Skyhook Wireless that they are providing WiFi positioning (similar concept to Google My Location but using a database of WiFi hotspots rather than cellular network base stations) to power the iPhone navigation.

So what you say….well in both these announcements, we had no mention of GPS!  We are now seeing a mass market device being provided with reasonable accuracy positioning technology without the need for GPS.  As my experience on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day in London revealed, I was able to use my Nokia E61i which also has no GPS capability to locate shops in busy Oxford Street quickly and easily.

Google and now Apple with iPhone have started to prove that GPS is not required for location enabled applications.  The tricky part is building (and maintaining) a massive database of either cellular base station Cell-ID’s or WiFi SSID’s.  As these are constantly changing, the key will be to ensure that changes are quickly applied to the database.  Over the Christmas break, I was in Kensington in London, and when I hit the “0” key on Google Maps to show my current location, it put me in Oxford, some 90 kilometres away – meaning the wrong Cell-ID in the Google database – so clearly some work is required here to ensure the application is robust enough for non-techies to use regularly.

The comment about iPhone finding its Mojo (with apologies to Austin Powers) refers to the fact that the iPhone is now a complete package – and does not need GPS to provide local search. The addition of location via the Google and Skyhook methods is an important first step towards the provision of a location context for local search and mobile advertising.  As my predictions for 2008 suggested, we will hear a lot more about location advertising in 2008.  

Update: This post on 22 January was easily the most read article on the site since I started blogging back in 2004.  There were over 120 unique visitors to the site in one day – helped no doubt by the promotion on the Carnival of the Mobilists post on MobHappy. Thanks for reading!