Technology

Nokia Leaps into Mobile Web with Sports Tracker


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The Nokia N82 handset with Sports Tracker GPS software gives superior directions on the road, but loses something amid tall buildings. Athletes may love it

On a recent holiday morning, I waited nervously in a pack of cyclists at a shopping mall parking lot outside Frankfurt, Germany, suited up in helmet and Lycra and waiting for the starting gun. I didn't have a prayer of winning the bicycle race, an amateur "everyman" competition staged in conjunction with a pro event on the same day. But I did have something I'm pretty sure no one else in the peloton did: Nokia Sports Tracker.

I was testing the free software program Nokia (NOK) developed for handsets equipped with global positioning, such as the N82 phone that the Finnish handset maker lent me. Shortly before the start, I fired up Sports Tracker by pushing a couple of buttons on the handset. As the tangle of several thousand cyclists pedaled carefully away from the starting area and gained speed, the software used the GPS capability to track my position, speed, and even altitude.

Precisely 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 19.6 seconds later, I rolled across the finish line. I finished in the middle of my age group over the hilly, 38-mile course—for me a good showing. But I was almost as excited to see if Sports Tracker had worked as advertised. Immediately I clicked "stop," and with another push of a button, wirelessly uploaded the data to Nokia's Sports Tracker site (sportstracker.nokia.com).

Maps: Nokia vs. Google

Later, sitting in front of a PC, I was able to track my route on a map and even superimpose it on satellite images of the terrain. (See for yourself.) It was a fun way to relive the experience since I hadn't taken any pictures with the N82's 5-megapixel camera. (Photography is not a good hobby to pursue at the same time you're pedaling.) But if I had, the software would have uploaded the images and embedded them on the map location where they were shot, the so-called geo-tagging feature.

Sports Tracker is the type of program that will determine whether Nokia is on the right track with a mobile Internet strategy based on location—or "context," to use the industry buzzword. I spent two months testing the N82, which online retailers are offering for about $550, in conjunction with Nokia Maps, the company's core location software. The device Nokia lent me for testing also included the company's navigation service, which normally costs $14 for a one-month local subscription, or $200 a year to cover all regions. I also compared the Nokia offering with the prototype version of Google Maps for mobile phones, a free download at www.google.com/mobile.

Nokia provides more useful navigation than Google (GOOG), and Sports Tracker is a brilliant way to use GPS for more than just getting around. However, Google Maps' search capability was better at finding nearby services such as restaurants. And Google Maps did a passable job determining my location using cell-phone signals rather than GPS. If, like most people, you don't yet have a GPS handset, Google Maps has a pretty good solution.

Getting Around with Dispatch

Nokia last year agreed to pay $8.1 billion for Chicago-based navigation-data provider Navteq, so you'd hope the company offers good navigation. In fact, it worked well. I used the voice navigation extensively around Frankfurt, as well as during several out-of-town trips, and it helped me follow some pretty complicated routes—though it also steered me wrong on a few occasions.

For example, the service guided me from a Hertz rent-a-car office in the Bavarian city of Ulm to the tax haven of Liechtenstein, where I was doing research for a story (BusinessWeek, 6/8/08). The route involved several border crossings and several changes of highway, as well as at least three separate cell-phone service providers. The female navigation voice with the British accent remained unflappable, failing only during the final mile, when the handset battery ran low. On the return trip, I missed a turn in Ulm and wound up on an Autobahn leading out of town. The navigation software quickly calculated a new route and guided me to my destination.

The service let me down, however, during a vacation trip to Ireland. At least twice while driving in downtown Dublin the Nokia navigation instructed me to make illegal turns. When I failed to comply, the service quickly calculated a new route, but the unnecessary detours were annoying. In Ireland, as in Britain, you drive on the left side of the road, which perhaps confused the navigation. The other major flaw with the N82 is that it gobbles battery power in GPS/navigation mode. The battery life wasn't sufficient for a trip of many hours. A recharging adapter for an auto cigarette lighter, available for about $15 online, would solve this problem.

Obstacle: Tall Buildings

Nokia has spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to position the GPS receiver amid the thicket of radio antennas present in modern handsets. The effort seems to have paid off. In contrast to a GPS-equipped Nokia N95 that I tested last year, the N82 handset was able to lock onto a satellite signal within seconds most of the time, even inside a car.

However, cities with tall buildings remain a problem, as Nokia technicians concede. In the high-rise neighborhood where I work in Frankfurt, the handset couldn't find a signal until I moved into an open area. Nokia also provides walking directions, a potentially very useful feature. But you can't count on the pedestrian navigation working in high-rise cities, where you're most likely to need the help.

Google Maps provides a less precise location, but buildings aren't an issue. In fact, Google Maps works better in urban areas where there are plenty of cell-phone towers the software can use to triangulate your position. Nokia GPS gives a more precise position when there are no buildings in the way.

On the downside, Google Maps lacks voice capability and is useless for driving unless you have a co-pilot to read the directions to you. (It would be very unwise to try to read the navigation instructions on the tiny handset screen while driving.) A Bluetooth earpiece is handy when using Nokia navigation, but I found I could hear the voice directions well enough directly from the N82 handset propped on the dashboard. I'm convinced that voice-only navigation is safer. Test-driving a navigation-equipped Mercedes recently, I found I had to work to keep my eyes on the road rather than the dashboard display. The N82 display is too small to be distracting.

Where's the Pizza?

The big money in location-based services lies in advertising. The business model is still evolving, but it's clear Nokia—as well as Google—would like to get a cut of the revenue when people use their mapping services to find nearby businesses, then make a purchase. So how well does local search work? I conducted a simple test in my neighborhood in Frankfurt, using the Nokia and Google search functions to locate nearby pizza restaurants.

Google, with its expertise in search technology, won easily. The software almost instantly provided the locations of a half-dozen pizza joints within easy walking distance, as well as addresses and telephone numbers. Google Maps wasn't perfect: It missed the popular pizza place almost directly across the street from my apartment building. But Google was still superior to the Nokia search function, which has a more complicated menu system and found fewer pizza parlors, none of them right in the neighborhood. Though Nokia claims its technology uses less bandwidth to load maps more quickly, I found that Google Maps loaded just fine.

It's too early to declare an ultimate winner in this evolving contest. For a wannabe athlete like myself, Sports Tracker is reason enough to choose Nokia. And GPS is important for highway driving when you want to know exactly where you are. For people who get around a lot and want navigation help, the Nokia N82 with a navigation subscription was clearly superior.

For casual users and people who want to search for services on the go, Google was good enough—especially for people without GPS-equipped phones.


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