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iPhone 3G: Where's the Nav?

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on July 15, 2008

Among the 500+ applications available from the iTunes App Store, the glaring omission is a turn-by-turn navigation service. This seems odd, since the iPhone, with it’s big display and beautiful touchscreen interface, seems ideally suited to a nav app of the sort available on many lesser handsets.

Why is it missing? And when might we get it?

In the runup to the iPhone's July 11 launch, there was a lot of industry speculation that Apple's GPS implementation was flawed, but the phone itself quickly dispelled them. While not as accurate as dedicated navigation devices from companies such as Garmin and TomTom, the i Phone's GPS-enabled Google Maps app shows that it is at least the equal of other GSM-based phones, such as the AT&T BlackBerry Curve to Motorola Q9h, both of which offer a turn-by-turn service.

The simple answer to why there is no turn-by-turn navigation is that Apple prohibits it. The iPhone software development kit license says:

Applications may not be designed or marketed for real time route guidance; automatic or autonomous control of vehicles, aircraft, or other mechanical devices; dispatch or fleet management; or emergency or life-saving purposes.

That just raises the question of why Apple included such language. The company, typically, is of no help. It took me four days to get an Apple spokesperson to say "Simply put, turn-by-turn navigation is not a feature offered on the iPhone 3G," and when pressed as to why, "I don't have a comment on what you are asking."

In the absence of information, we are left with speculation. I think that business issues, not technical considerations, are keeping real-time nav from the iPhone, and these will eventually be resolved. iPhone marketing chief Greg Joswiak hinted at that in an interview with ExtremeTech.

First, a bunch of problems have to be solved. There are two ways to do nav. Standalone personal navigation devices keep maps, the directions database, and points of interest all in on board storage. The iPhone has enough storage to do this, but depending on how detailed you want your maps and how many points of interest are included, the map data can make a pretty big dent in the space available for music, video, and photos. Also, unless there's a mechanism for regular updating, the data will quickly grow stale.

At best, such an on-bard nav app would have to be a lot more expensive than the $5 to $10 charged for most App Store programs. Just the fee to license the data from Navteq (recently purchased by Nokia) or TeleAtlas (owned by TomTom) will ensure that. And you can't just build a nav app on top of Google Maps because Google has not licensed the data for that purpose.

The alternative generally used on handsets is to download maps and driving directions over the network. Typically, this is an extra-cost service added to your monthly bill and the carrier splits the fee with a service provider, such as Networks in Motion or TeleNav, which provides service to AT&T's other GPS-equipped handsets. The problem for the iPhone is that the Apps Store has no provision for subscriptions. And an arrangement that splits the fee three ways among apple, a carrier, and a service provider is problematic.

Still, I suspect that downloads are the way to go, and the reason that Apple has blocked third-party nav development is that it is working on an exclusive deal. That's likely to cause considerable unhappiness among third-party software developers, but such things have never bothered Apple in the past. It will be particularly interesting to see if Apple attempts to cut AT&T and other carriers out of the action. I suspect we'll know before long.

Reader Comments


July 15, 2008 2:38 PM

I've also read/heard that it involves legal liability. You drive off a cliff because of the turn-by-turn directions, you sue (or your relatives do)

Steve Wildstrom

July 15, 2008 3:28 PM

@PXLated--I've heard lots of people talk about potential liability problems, but I've never heard it from someone actually in the nav business. Yes, they wrap their products in all sorts of disclaimer cotton wool, but as far as I know, there has not been a successful suit against a nav supplier for leading someone astray. I think the liability stuff is a smokescreen.


July 15, 2008 6:56 PM

Smokescreen - Could be.
No successful suits yet doesn't mean there won't be. Especially as these migrate to phones, everyone could end up with a gps rather than the niche it's been.


July 16, 2008 7:19 AM

No one knows exactly why Apple resists. They tend to do all things for profit, and on that basis I predict we'll all have to wait until they figure out how to maximize their profit from GPS navigation.


July 16, 2008 10:04 AM

Ever thought it might be Apple developing its own Nav System? Wanna bet?!

Other than this interesting question, this article is so full of blunders!

We readers are just so fed up of negativity, it seems reporters(?) feed off of it obtaining great satisfaction from it! Get a life! Saint John's Wort will do the trick.

The article does reference to Greg Joswiak's interview but neglects to state his assertive remark that the iPhone's GPS chip is as good or better than ANY other GPS chip in the market. In fact, if you did your homework, you would know that the iPhone's A-GPS chip is top of the line, it is in fact BETTER than other non-assisted GPS chips from dedicated GPS devices such as the ones from TomTom or Garmin.

Assisted GPS uses the cellphone tower triangulation to *assist* on the GPS chip in areas such as office buildings and long tunnels or at the start of the application when it looks for satellites or any other situation where there is difficulty to catch a satellite.

And yet you state that dedicated GPS devices are more accurate?! Are you protecting those manufacturers?! Or just plain resistant to innovation or to Apple?

Furthermore, I have a friend with a Windows Mobile smartphone that has TomTom installed and is connected to an external non-assisted GPS radio, I have driven with it and it is impeccable. The point I'm getting at is that it's got both Iberia Peninsula AND Europe maps that he switches between as he wishes and it doesn't take more than 1,25GB of storage! How is 1,25GB an impediment of working on the iPhone?! Maybe the 8GB would have it a bit too tight but that's the toll one has to pay if one wants turn-by-turn navigation - buy the 16GB then!

BTW, I have heard criticism - probably from TomTom or Garmin stock owners or just ignorant people - that the iPhone screen would not be as usable as dedicated GPS devices due to its smaller screen. What??!! Well, it is my experience this WM smartphone I talked about is perfect for navigation and it is only 2.8" and not 3.5" like the gorgeous iPhone screen. As a matter of fact, I just can't wait for my iPhone 3G to get GPS Navigation, it's a gorgeous GPS killer.

Apple knows GPS on the iPhone is a killer-app and they are still studying how to take the most advantage of that - I just have this intuition it's developing its own NAV Sw! It's just too irresistible to not give in to that. Apple is here to show other companies how much better they can do things and by doing so they steal their markets away - GPS is an important nascent market and Apple wants it badly. Having iPhones working as GPS devices in everyone's car - and, why not, as music systems - will be extremely important for its success, it'll be a moving advert and everyone will be staring at that light next to their neighbor's driving wheel and lusting for it.

Dear iPhone user, do not fret, you will soon get your iPhone working as a full GPS device, elegantly mounted on your car's dashboard for your pride, joy and usefulness. Just relax and accept that good things come to those who wait.

So a pile of misinformation that only adds confusion to the reader. Crap journalism if it could be called that...


July 16, 2008 10:40 AM

Could it be iPhone Software update 3.0, only $1.99?

What about iChat? Where's that simple program?

Instead, we get a bug-ridden AIM client.


July 16, 2008 11:31 AM

Telenav is the way to go. They just need to get a deal done. It is an amazing tool on the Sprint and other networks.


July 16, 2008 12:00 PM

FYI re a typo:

"At best, such an on-bard nav app"

I'm guessing you meant "on-board"?


July 16, 2008 12:03 PM

You know I don't really care about that it dosen't have NAV now, but I really wish Apple would be more forthcoming in its explanations. I feel we have a basic principle of right to know in this country, obviously Apple doesn't, but it is shifting, ever so subtly, to becoming one based on a need to know. It seems everyone from government to Apple treats us like little kids, and says when you grow up and understand we'll explain it to you. When they explain it to me as an adult I'll buy the iPhone, till then do what you want


July 16, 2008 1:26 PM

If you search other articles about this you will notice that an Apple spokesperson has stated that he expects 3rd party developers to produce turn-by-turn navigation software for the iPhone. He also says there's nothing in the iPhone software development agreement that prohibits such software from being developed.

Steve Wildstrom

July 16, 2008 1:44 PM

@Tom--If someone could point me to any statement on this subject from Apple that doesn't end up pointing baqck to the same Greg Joswiak interview that I link to, I'd love to know about it.

Joz was, at best, very enigmatic in his statement about the future of nav. And if the quote from the iPhone SDK that is included in the original post doesn't mean what it appears to say, I'd like to know what it does mean. Certainly, folks in the navigation industry that I have talked to interpret it the same way I do.


July 16, 2008 1:46 PM

So what? The new iPhone 3G doesn't have turn-by-turn GPS coverage. As said above, this will surely be resolved after some negotiating. The iPhone 3G is capable of much more, and choosing not to buy it on GPS capabilities alone is the wrong way to go.


July 16, 2008 4:23 PM

I think the problem isn't so much the legal liability if someone dies as a result of the navigation, but more likely has to do with Apple's close relationship with Google and ATT.

ATT would be cut out of the pie that is GPS should such an app be developed. Unless Apple launches its own GPS in which ATT could then get a piece of the pie it is probably prohibited in their exclusive contract. Too many variables there.

Then, should those problems get solved, Apple would have to get the map data from somewhere. Should they get it from a place that is not Google, Google feels betrayed and their agreement might prohibit Apple from partnering with another mapping client at all.

My guess is that eventually, the problems will be solved by the three parties. E-v-e-n-t-u-a-l-l-y. Google will open its maps up to nav use by Apple for a fee and ATT will somehow get a piece of the pie, perhaps by uniquely identifying map data that is transfered to the iphone and allowing ATT to charge a different price for that kind of data, or something.

Apple would love a piece of that pie, but they would have to share it with Google and ATT as its likely currently structed making it far less desirable to Apple. Right now, they are focused on increased market share for cell phones, while still struggling with the Mac v PC uphill climb (which was why they partnered with Intel, etc).

Steve Wildstrom

July 16, 2008 4:32 PM

@Chris--Google doesn't actually own any map data; they license it from TeleAtlas and Navteq, and that license as it currently stands does not allow for the use of the maps and driving directions for real time nav.

Also, in my experience, Google can't actually serve the maps fast enough or reliably enough for real-time nav. It's not what the service is designed for. There are a lot of tricks to serving real-time navigation, which is why it is done by specialists. AT&T's and Sprint's nav service comes from TeleNav, Verizon's from Networks in Motion.

Mary Beth Lowell - TeleNav

July 16, 2008 7:10 PM

We (TeleNav) did confirm last week (via an interview with Gizmodo) that we are developing an application for the 3G iPhone. The launch date and billing details are still TBD and unannounced however.

Roy Hodges

July 16, 2008 7:56 PM

I really really dislike these subscriptions services being crammed down our throats! That's what this is most likely about, finding a way to lock down maps so that nobody can just buy a map set and never have to buy GPS capability in the iPhone.

The only reason I wanted an iPhone was to replace my Window Mobile 6 phone that has TomTom on it, and as usual Apple didn't make it clear what you can't do on their system.


July 17, 2008 9:36 AM

Apple prohibiting this up front is actually a nice change from past behavior: let 3rd parties lay the groundwork, then release an Apple version of it or fold it into an Apple product, making the 3rd party solution obsolete.


July 17, 2008 9:53 AM

For Apple, NAV is also missing on Mac laptops under OS X..
While Microsoft provides MS Streets & Trips with USB connected (including wireless) GPS antennae ($99 US) running under Windows on PCs (now INTEL Macs), there is no NAV/GPS mapping software designed for OS X.
Tens of Thousands of Trucker and other professional drivers/travelers use vehicle mounted laptops with 15' screens to easily view realtime maps of their GPS position and route.
While laymen are apparently in love with turn-by-turn instructions for cars, Truckers and other professionals need viewable GPS MAPS to select their routes (vehicle limitations, fuel availability, safest route, primary use of Interstate highways, etc.), because turn-by-turn would get them into trouble instead of helping.
Professionals need GPS to know exactly where they are now (lost?), the exact location of their destination address, and the best route to drive. GPS on a MacBook (or Pro) is the answer, and running it on OS X would be outstanding.
Apple could and should write such software for Leopard, sell a GPS antennae for under $49, and provide iMap or iGPS for free.
MS Streets & Trips is nice but not very user friendly, has a horrible GUI appearance, and lacks Mac-like design and functionality. Hey, it's MS for PC, what can one expect? One thing, PCs have GPS mapping for Windows, and OS X users do not.


July 17, 2008 11:04 AM

"I feel we have a basic principle of right to know in this country"

Dave, you aren't serious? We have a "right to know" what Apple's business plans are? Apple is not a branch of the federal government. Unless they are building a secret underground lair with Dr. Evil, we don't have a right to know jack.

You might *like* to know. Apple has every right to keep anything they do (strategically not financially of course) completely secret if they so choose.

The market will take care of it. Personally, I think Apple has lost a chance at huge corporate dollars because of their secretive stance. But that is between Apple and it's shareholders.


July 17, 2008 12:14 PM

Seems to me like the iPhone would be the perfect hardware for a Dash Express-like offering, with the user base necessary to really make it work : nearly live updates on blocked road, actual driving speed, etc.


July 17, 2008 3:15 PM

This is all about constraints, specfically design constraints. Apple will not do what all the others do because everyone else tries to put 10 pounds in a 5 pound bag. Read a little bit about the success of the iPod, iTunes, and iTunes Media Store and you will realize that including navigation would be absurd unless Apple planned on getting into the navigation technology side, which is already monopolized. Thus, don't expect it in the near or forseeable future for the iPhone.

Steve Wildstrom

July 17, 2008 5:25 PM

A little clarification on third-party efforts to add real-time nav. When the App Store plans were announced in June, TomTom said it would have a turn-by-turn nav app and even demoed it, but that's that's the last we've heard of the project.

As noted in Mary Beth Lowell's post above, TeleNav is also working on a TBT app. But as of now, there is no timeline on when it might be avaiable nor any information on whether it will be subscription based.


July 17, 2008 6:47 PM

The free Apps make the iPhone almost free. If Apple had charged $5 for the 200 free apps, it wou;d have cost $1,000. So you are getting $1,000 worth of free Apps with an iPhone purchase. And there are more free Apps coming in the future. The iPhone is worth every penny.
Check out this blog:


July 19, 2008 9:13 PM

@Matt: you said: "Personally, I think Apple has lost a chance at huge corporate dollars because of their secretive stance. But that is between Apple and it's shareholders."

Quite the opposite, Matt - in Apple's younger, less wiser days, they lost huge, huge market share and nearly folded as a corporation because they were too forthcoming with information and plans to their "partners" who turned out to be competitors in disguise, even going as far as firing those executives who were warning them about this (Steve Jobs no less).

This time around, Apple and its shareholders are a bit wiser and less prone to revealing every step they are about to make, with good reason.


July 21, 2008 1:23 AM

I have iNav for Windows Mobile (Sprint Mogule HTC 6800). The complete US maps take 1.7 GB on a memory card, and I can get spoken voice turn-by-turn 3D or top-down mapping using plain or isometric views. The HTC phones also use the same Qualcomm a-GPS module and it's generally accurate to around a yard or so. If Windows phones can do it then so can Apple's phone.

Sergey Zak

July 21, 2008 5:07 AM

And Where's A2DP? AV-RCP?
Where's Video-Call, the essence of 3G?
Geez, where the second most used case for 3G - the fast access to the Internet from laptop via phone's modem?

iPhone is not quite there.
"i" stands for 'dumbed down' in Apple lingo.
Give me "Apple PhonePro".

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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