As if we needed another sign that location will be the hot topic for 2008, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) today announced a significant upgrade to its Google Maps for mobile application called My Location. In order to get a better handle on the upgrade, I sat down with Steve Lee, product manager, Google Maps for mobile, to discuss Google’s plans for location applications.Over The Air (OTA): Hello Steve, welcome to Take 5 on Over The Air. Can you tell us a little bit about the new My Location feature on Google Maps for mobile? What does it do? And how does it work?
Steve Lee (SL): Fewer than 15% of the mobile phones expected to ship in 2007 have GPS capabilities. With Google’s new My Location technology, users who don’t have GPS-enabled mobile phones will now be able to take advantage of the added speed and convenience afforded by location information. The new My Location feature, which is being released in beta, helps people determine where they are on the map, even if their phone doesn’t have GPS. Users simply press  to move the map to their approximate location. This saves time and keystrokes for users trying to find out where they are, what’s around them, and how to get there.
For people with a GPS-enabled device, this blue dot corresponds to their GPS location. If users don’t have GPS on their phone (or if their GPS-enabled phone has lost the satellite signal), My Location will still provide them with location information, only the blue dot may be surrounded by a light blue circle to represent an approximation of their location.
In addition, the My Location technology can actually complement GPS-enabled devices. My Location kicks in faster than the GPS in most cases, so users can access their location even faster on the map. It also works consistently indoors (unlike GPS) and conserves phone batteries more than GPS.
OTA: Which devices does My Location support?
SL: The My Location technology is available on most smartphones, including all color BlackBerry devices, all Symbian Series 60 3rd Edition devices, most Windows Mobile devices, newer Sony Ericsson devices, and some Motorola (NYSE: MOT) devices. As more and more devices that support cell ID technology ship, we’ll be working to make the My Location technology available on them.
Users can access Google Maps for mobile with My Location in the following countries, though coverage may vary at first: U.S., U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Portugal, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, Russian Federation, and Taiwan.
OTA: Why is the load time on My Location so much faster than on GPS-based Google Maps?
SL: GPS devices must recognize the satellite. This can take up to several minutes. One of the benefits of My Location is the speed at which it approximate a users’ location, which is made possible because there is no satellite involved and the cell tower information required by My Location is immediately available on the device and it is a simple lookup table on the Google server.
OTA: How will My Location improve over time? And will it blend with GPS?
SL: Yes, the more people use the feature, the more data we’ll have, which will increase our coverage area and make our location approximations more precise. However, we don’t see My Location as a replacement for GPS. Instead, My Location will continue to complement GPS by providing location information to users when a quick approximation will do, when they are inside, or save battery power.
OTA: What technology is involved? Is this technology Google acquired?
SL: The technology was developed within Google and it uses mobile towers to approximate location. Mobile towers are placed by operators throughout an area to provide coverage for their users. Each of these towers has its own individual coverage area, usually split into three nonoverlapping sections known as “cells.” These cells come with identification numbers, but no location information. Google takes geo-contextual information and associates this information with the cell at that location to develop a database of cell locations. With this information, Google uses various algorithms to approximate a user’s handset location relative to the cells nearest to him or her. The accuracy of this information depends on how big an individual cell is. So areas with a denser concentration of mobile towers allow for a more accurate My Location reading. And as our database of cell locations continues to improve, so, too, will the accuracy and coverage of the My Location feature.
OTA: So does this mean that Google knows where users are when they use the My Location feature?
SL: No, it doesn’t. Google Maps for mobile sends anonymous radio information back to Google servers to improve the service, but Google doesn’t gather any personally identifiable information as part of the My Location feature or associate any location data with uniquely identifying data.
OTA: Will we see a social networking piece added to My Location and Google Maps For Mobile?
SL: While we don’t have any additional announcements to make right now, we see many potential applications for My Location. Certainly, social networking is a prime example, but right now we’re interested in feedback on the current My Location beta and are looking to improve the feature based on what we hear.
For a demonstration of the enhanced Google Maps for mobile, check out this video: