The latest version of Google Maps Mobile has a menu item which shows you where you are, without recourse to GPS or deals with network operators, but those with GPS will be asked to lend a hand in keeping the database up to date and improving its accuracy.
Google Maps Mobile version 2 is currently in Beta, but available for Symbian and Windows Mobile and can be downloaded from the Google mobile site. The application picks up the Cell ID of the local base station, along with some signal information, and sends that off to Google for comparison with their database of known locations.
If the handset has GPS, and can get a GPS fix, then both sets of information are sent to Google as a new entry in the database - making it more accurate for the next user.
Using the Cell ID is much, much faster than mucking about with orbiting satellites, and in many cases the accuracy is enough to start the user off scrolling to where they want to see. Some rough testing shows that in the Home Counties users can get a fix within a few hundred metres, while in the Highlands it's more like a few tens of miles.
It's always been possible for network operators to track mobile phones in this way, and in the UK they keep records of such location information for a year, but until now the link between Cell ID and location has been something the operators kept to themselves despite several attempts to create a public database.
Google's database is far from public, and a spokesman told us they've not yet got plans to sell access to the information - though that can't be far off. The same spokesman was eager to point out that while Google might be collecting GPS and Cell ID information, they have no way of linking that to a particular person or phone handset, so (for the moment at least) there's no significant privacy issue.
Obviously Google needed to get an initial sampling of information, basically by driving around the place with appropriate handsets and GPS equipment. An expensive process, and all the more impressive as 22 countries are already covered. But this investment should pay well as having a rough fix on your location makes Google Maps Mobile infinitely more usable, and should increase the interest to advertisers wanting to sell local services.
This could be exactly the development needed to kick-start the much-anticipated location-based services industry, and Google have placed themselves very well to be in the driving seat of that industry. ®