iPhone 3G: Where's the Nav?

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.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.