Men don’t (need to) ask for directions

You know the old saying, men never ask for directions. But lately we don’t have to, because the number of mapping-related products is just mushrooming. What is interesting is that the GPS is now becoming mission critical to so many applications, as more cell phones, cars, and other Internet-connected devices rely on them to provide position, speed, and geolocation services.

I started thinking about this after trying out a new Ford Fiesta with the latest version of its Sync software. Ford has been playing catch up to GM’s Onstar voice-prompted services and has some interesting new advances with Sync. On the car that I had, it had a small monochrome screen and no mapping software per se. You had to pair the car with your cellphone’s Bluetooth connector to gain access to its more advanced features. Basically, the car was using your phone’s connectivity to get downloaded turn-by-turn instructions, which the voice prompts in the car would announce at the right moments.

Ford’s Sync comes in two basic flavors: one without the mapping software and one with. The Fiesta’s dash doesn’t have room for the maps, sadly, and so you have to go through some gyrations to get the turn-by-turn directions. The best way is to go to Google Maps on your PC before your trip and enter your starting and ending points. Google has been enhancing its mapping software service, and one button that I haven’t noticed until now is labeled “SEND.” You can choose to send it to your Sync-equipped car, to various Onstar vehicles, and a few others, as well as to an add-on GPS unit or to an email account. It is pretty spooky, because if you choose to send it to your car, it waits for your phone to pair up, with your car and then downloads the turns.

Mapquest offers a similar service to send its maps, but for fewer car models.

You can also try to speak your destination to the voice response system in the car. However, this is somewhat akin to talking to a four-year-old child with bad hearing. One of the first places that I was trying to get to had a five-digit address on a street with three names in a city that was based on a French place. I didn’t really try to stump the chump but that is what ended up happening.

Sync of course isn’t the only GPS option available. Most smartphones come with GPS apps, but the default ones for the iPhone don’t offer spoken turn-by-turn directions, and most others will cost money. A new choice is Skobbler, which is based on the openmap interface and is free.

While we are talking about maps, I came across Crowdmap, a new service that allows anyone to mashup their own maps. Think of it like what WordPress did for building web sites. You can see my own primitive attempt to put together a map here.

As you start thinking about GPS and mapping apps, you realize that the weakest link in this process is the GPS satellites themselves. And there are a number of GPS jammers (illegal in US and many other countries), which are now commonly available at numerous online stores for $250, and some for even much less. The issue is two-fold: GPS signals are easy to block, given that the satellites don’t put out much power to begin with. And the jamming sources are very hard to locate, also because they don’t radiate much power to do their dirty work. One jammer located near Newark Airport took months to track down. A trucker who was trying to get around paying tolls on the adjoining New Jersey Turnpike would interfere with a new system that the airport was trying to deploy.

To prevent this, the Defense Department has proposed a smartphone app to detect GPS jammers that people can use to report problems. Of course, then we all have to be persuaded to keep these apps running (and suffer the battery life consequences on our phones too).

In the meantime, my fellow males can hope that they don’t have to ask for directions as long as the GPS system is working.

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