By Craig Buckler

Sat Nav – the Killer Application for Offline Web Technology?

By Craig Buckler

web-based satnavIn yesterday’s post, I discussed the problem of developing offline web functionality and the disappointing number of applications which use it. I summarized that offline functionality seems like a technology waiting for an application.

However, there is one killer app which will almost certainly change the market within the next few years: web-based satellite navigations systems. Sat navs have been around for a while, but they can be expensive, require dedicated devices, and are not always easy to update. There is also software for mobile phones, such as those from Google and Nokia, but the facilities can be limited.

However, a pure web-based sat nav is becoming increasingly feasible and offers several benefits.

Better location search
If you don’t know your destination’s street name or zip code, a sat nav can be practically useless. A web-based solution lets you locate a destination by company name, area, type of business, or any other criteria using natural language.

Instant updates
Details of new routes, road works, accidents, heavy traffic etc. can be updated in real time and relayed to a web application. Some sat navs offer this facility but many require subscription fees and the quality of the information is variable.

Data mashups
A web-based sat nav can access information from anywhere on the net. Once your route is calculated, the sat nav could offer live videos of road-side cameras, restaurant or hotel offers, sites of interest, etc.

Collaborative routing
Details of every user’s journey can be collated and analyzed. The driver would have access to a huge database of recommended routes, average times, interesting journeys, etc. Rather than selecting the shortest or quickest route, the driver would be able to select the quietest, most popular, best scenery, etc.

Alternative transport
A web-based system can access information from a variety of transport systems — not just the road. For example, the data might indicate that a route will be especially busy because of holiday traffic, recommend a train service and instantly book a ticket.

Supports existing hardware
Many smart phones already offer good web browsers and GPS facilities. There’s no reason why you couldn’t use a netbook, tablet or similar hardware rather than a dedicated device.

Multiple input methods
Dedicated sat navs have restricted hardware and software, but a smart phone or PC can support other input and output devices. For example, the web cam or microphone could be utilized to offer gestures or voice control.

Free data
Systems such as Google Maps, Street View and Earth already provide free mapping data which could be used by a web-based sat nav. The systems could also be commercialized by companies paying to play audio or text-based adverts when you approach their premises (think Minority Report!)

However, the current problem is internet connectivity. Wi-fi is not universally available and mobile internet connections could be slow or fail when entering a tunnel or built-up area. The obvious solution is offline web technology. Once you’re on the road, the application could cache the full journey details or download essential information within, say, a 10-mile radius.

Both Nokia and Google already offer beta versions of free turn-by-turn navigation systems for mobile operating systems. The news has caused TomTom’s share price to slump in recent weeks, although there’s no reason why TomTom couldn’t capitalize on the technologies.

Do you think a free browser-based sat nav using offline technology will emerge? Will it happen soon?

  • wwb_99

    Why bother going offline when you have 3g/4g to work with?

  • fattyjules

    wwb_99: Craig explains why in the third last paragraph

  • W2ttsy

    not all countries have reliable 3g access, even places like Australia dont have extensive 3g coverage in all places and either have GPRS or nothing.

    A total end to end solution mashup as described above would be awesome, but alot of feed providers have strict rules on what uses their feeds provide. For instance Google Maps API doesnt allow for users to include it in apps that have turn by turn nav in them.

    Google itself has already put alot of headway into the businesses near location type of app, but without businesses having the wherewithal to add their details, then its a moot point. personally id like to see a GPS system that adjusts itself depending on which street you take. For instance, if it says turn left at street A, and you miss that street, the directions should modify themselves to show a new route. This sort of stuff was hollywood fancy in Fast and Furious 4, but the technology exists now to pull it off.

    I guess the biggest limiting factor to offline web apps is the fact that they are suited to running on android, blackberry or iphone and i can tell you now that it would be much more beneficial to build a dedicated app that has access to the devices systems, than a limited offline web app.

  • It’s not about going offline permanently, but caching essential data when it’s a possibility. Tunnels and remote locations, for example.

  • Tyler F

    I had a similar idea about a year ago, but I have no idea where I would start.

    The amount of data aswell, it would still cost to download the data over 3G, unless you plan the route before hand at home or at a wifi location, get a cached version of your route, and then updates are sent via 3G, for example if there is a road accident, it will warn you and give you alternative routes.

  • There’s no reason why you couldn’t cache a country’s whole road network over wi-fi. Roads are normally stored as vectors, so they don’t take a significant amount of room.

    Accident information and other data could then be received over 3G or as you’re passing a wifi hotspot (assuming heavy traffic!)

  • richthegeek

    “There’s no reason why you couldn’t cache a country’s whole road network over wi-fi.”
    The issue is not storage space for the network, it’s the method that you use to find routes from one point to another. Path-finding algorithms are generally quite expensive (worst-case in exponential to the number of nodes) in both processing and memory terms, and this becomes even more notable when the device it is running on is approximately 16x less powerful than your laptop/pc.
    The other option is to store predefined routes, but this quickly becomes waaay too large in terms of memory. Even a halfway house (store common routes and work out paths to and from that route) is expensive, and often results in back-tracking and inefficient routes.
    An internet connection is needed not to provide you the layout of the roads but the route to travel through it.

  • richthegeek

    On second thoughts, maybe Google can do it: (19:30 specifically)

  • sjr

    Surely you need an internet conenction to get a satalite fix, otherwise there’s no way of knowing where you are on the map.

  • @sjr
    Many mobiles and some netbooks have GPS built in. You can sometimes use a mobile network to get an approximate fix too.

  • ontology2

    I have a handheld GPS that I use in both urban and backwoods locations.

    In urban places, I can imagine using something like an iPhone 3G (it will work) but even 10 miles from Ithaca, you can’t get a signal in hilly places (like my house.) For me, a system that requires a net connection is a non-started.

    Developing a major GIS system based on offline web technology would be quite a challenge. If you’re going to store raw shapes and render maps, you’re going to need (i) a geospatial database (without the right indexes it will take you forever to draw the maps) and (ii) very fast rendering (~maybe~ Silverlight, just maybe…)

    If, on the other hand, you want a local copy of tile maps (like Google maps) you’re talking 100’s of GB for the whole world, although you could probably fit tiles for an area that you’re visiting in < 1 GB. I think tile based maps would go great with Flash memory. Still, it's a lot of data to move around… You'd need something like "iTunes" to load just the maps you need, at least until the memory size of portable devices goes way up.

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