Archive for November, 2014

Harnessing GPS (Location Services) within mobile applications

November 15th, 2014 by Hubert Yap

In this post PC era, large numbers of people now use smartphones and/or tablets to connect to each other in realtime because, unlike PCs, smartphones and tablets are not locked down in one location. Millions of people now carry a smartphone in their pocket (or tablet in their bag), pull it out anytime, and within seconds use it to chat with their friends/families, check what is on the news, find out what is causing the current traffic jam, share a photo of what they are experiencing, etc.

Mobile Apps and Location Services

One particular feature of smartphones and tablets that takes advantage of our mobility, is Location Services. Location Services allows a smartphone/tablet application to determine the device location via wireless connection or GPS and send it back to a server. This article will cover how Location Services can be useful for users and businesses alike, challenges in retrieving the device location, and how to address those challenges.

From a user point of view, Location Services allows them to send their location and receive specific information in return. Take for example the Google Map application. By using Google Map, users can send their device location and receive information about their whereabouts. This feature is particularly useful when we are travelling to a place we have never visited before. Generally people use Location Services to receive information that may only be relevant when they are at a specific location (i.e. nearby restaurants, local weather, nearby traffic congestion, movies in nearby cinema, friends who are nearby, etc).

From a business point of view, Location Services can be used to promote discoverability. An app can be configured to send specific information when a user is in a particular area. For example, if a business has a specific product catalogue for each city, their app can show the correct product catalogue to each user by retrieving the users’ location beforehand. Location Services can also be used to determine where business or consumer activities took place. This data has a wide range of uses.

All benefits come with drawbacks. For Location Services, one of the major concerns is battery life. If an app runs down the battery life of your device, you will limit your use of the app. That’s obviously not an option if the app is being used to carry out your job.

Wireless and GPS can only give a rough estimation of where the user is located. Therefore an app sometimes need to retrieve the users location 2-3 times in order to achieve better location precision. The longer we want the app to keep retrieving user location, the more battery power it will consume. This is one reason why a map application drains a lot of battery power. A typical map application needs to constantly retrieve the user’s location because the app is most often used when the user is walking or driving. It is important to achieve a balance between the battery power consumed and the location precision required. For example, if the app only needs to find which city the user is currently in, it can simply define a location precision of about 5 kilometres. Doing so will reduce the amount of battery power consumed compared to a location precision of a few hundred metres.

Another challenge that affects battery life is whether the app uses wireless, GPS, or a combination of both. GPS is more precise and faster when it comes to retrieving user location and is therefore a more recommended approach if your app needs to constantly updates the location. However, GPS is not suitable to retrieve user location when the user is inside a building due to the signal attenuation caused by construction materials. In such case, the app can only retrieve user location via the wireless network, assuming the user device is connected to one.

If the application needs to be able to retrieve user location in both indoor and outdoor, a combination of wireless and GPS is required. The app can be configured to use primarily GPS and only use wireless when GPS fails to retrieve user location, or use both at the same time and stop them if one has successfully received the location. The former will consume less battery power when the device is outdoor but there will be performance overhead when the device is indoors because the app will wait until GPS fails to retrieve user location before using wireless. On the other hand, the latter consumes more battery power on both indoor and outdoor but has better performance indoors.

Building an app that takes advantage of Location Services can give mutual benefits to both users and businesses. In summary, to make the best use of Location Services it is important to consider:

  1. How precise the retrieved user location needs to be,
  2. How often the app should retrieve user location,
  3. Where the user will mostly use the app: indoors, outdoors, or both.

Some examples of apps we have built for our clients which use Location Services are:

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