Elgan: Stop ignoring the GPS in your phone

You paid extra for the GPS feature in your cell phone, so why aren't you using it?

You hear a lot about how great cell phone GPS is. Tech pundits blather endlessly about the amazing new features and capabilities of cell phone GPS (guilty as charged!) And you even shelled out extra for that fancy smart phone with GPS as one of its best features.

So why aren't you using it?

The truth is that the integration of GPS into cell phones is growing at an astronomical pace. But the actual use of cell phone GPS is lackluster.

Here's why. There's a conspicuous lack of clear information out there about how to take advantage of cell phone GPS. I'm sure you already know that if you pay extra, you can get maps and turn-by-turn directions. But what else can you do?

There are many powerful ways to take advantage of your phone's GPS. I'm going to tell you one very simple way that requires the installation of just one application. So, if your carrier is Alltel, AT&T, Boost, Helio, metroPCS or Sprint, and you use a Nokia N-series phone, BlackBerry, iPhone 3G or any number of LG, Samsung, Sanyo or Motorola phones, I'm going to tell you how to take advantage of your cell phone GPS. (Note that there are lots of GPS options on other carriers and phones.)

First, download and install a cell phone GPS application called Where. The application supports more than 40 GPS "widgets," which means 40 ways to take advantage of GPS.

Once installed, here's what you can do with Where:

  • Find cheap gas. The GasBuddy widget simply lists all nearby gas stations in order of cheapest to most expensive.
  • Get involved in politics. Eventful Politics tells you about all the political events scheduled for your area.
  • Find out what's going on. A widget called Eventful Events is literally the easiest way to see what concerts, festivals, plays, sports events and other stuff is coming to your area. Just launch the applet and choose "All Events," and there they are. Another widget called StubHub, does something similar.
  • Tell friends, family and "followers" where you are. You may have heard about Buddy Beacon, which is made by uLocate. Buddy Beacon can automatically show the friends and relatives you choose where you are and can show you where they are. It doesn't track you all the time. It just updates your location when you push a button. Buddy Beacon also has a Facebook application, so your Facebook Friends can see where you are, too. It does this by updating your Facebook "status." You can use the GPS to update it, or type in a location -- all on your phone.
  • Click on a "Post to Twitter" feature. If you're a Twitter user, you can click on a "Post to Twitter" feature in the Buddy Beacon Facebook application setup.
  • Go hiking. One of the Where widgets is called Fugawi. Unlike ordinary maps you're likely to use on a cell phone, which show streets and business names, Fugawi shows topographical information, which is great when you're hiking, backpacking or camping. It also overlays streets and roads, but it doesn't give you their names. Still, if you're lost in the woods, it can help direct you to the nearest "exit."
  • Find the nearest Starbucks. A special Starbucks Finder shows you all nearby Starbucks listed in order of which are closest to you.
  • Get Where tips and freebies. Insider Alerts asks you to broadly tell what "generation" you're in ("love child" from the '60s, "gen xer" from the '70s, "I want my MTV" from the '80s, "dot-com or dot-bust" from the '90s and also your gender.) You'll then get occasional SMS messages with location-based information.
  • Amuse yourself. Quite a few widgets are just fun and a little goofy. For example, a widget called Digging to China tells you where you would emerge if you dug straight down, through the center of the Earth and came back out on the other side.
  • Use Flickpics, a kind of reverse photo geo-tagging. Instead of geo-tagging your photos to share with others, it lets you get the geo-tagged photos that others have posted on Flickr and shows them to you -- but just the photos taken in your current location.
  • Visit roadside attractions. World's Largest is the name of a widget that directs you to nutty roadside attractions.
  • Go to the beach. The Beaches widget gives you directions to the nearest beach.
  • Get drunk. Brewery finder helps you find an emergency beer location nearest you. The Pubwalk-Nightlife widget combines your GPS location with CitySearch and Google Maps to find nearby pubs and bars. An Irish Pubs widget directs you to the nearest Irish pub. Winery Finder takes you to the nearest winery.
  • Find whatever you want. The top of Where has a Google-like search box. Just type in what you want (say, "coffee"), and Where will show you all the places nearby where you can find it, starting with the closest.

These are just some of the things you can do with your GPS using only one application. (Here's a complete list of Where widgets.)

So no more ignoring that GPS in your pocket, people!

If you don't have GPS in your phone, make sure your next one has it. And if you do have GPS, download Where, install as many widgets as you can and start taking advantage of one of the most useful, time-saving, money-saving, lifestyle-enhancing technologies every crammed into a cell phone.

You can find just about anything with your cell phone GPS. But the best thing you'll find is just how fun and useful that GPS can be.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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