GPS, Back In the Day

Today a GPS chip can fit in a cell phone and can cost as little as a dollar. Thirty years ago a GPS device cost tens of thousands of dollars, was bigger than a bread box (see picture) and was used only by the military. Bob Rennard, chief technology officer at mobile navigation company TeleNav, remembers those days. He was a principal engineer of GPS technology in the ’70s and earlier this week he regaled a fascinating story to me:

Rennard says when he was working on designing the original GPS system his team had three goals:

1) Be able to drop 5 bombs in the same hole during combat.

2) Make a GPS receiver that could be worn on a soldier’s back.

3) Make that device for under $20,000.

Wow. Well, 30 years later those goals look as dated as room-sized computers. At Santa Clara-based TeleNav, Rennard and TeleNav executives like CEO HP Jin are making GPS navigation services available on the average cell phone for about $10 per month. The company has been winning over carriers and handset makers and announced that it has added carrier Alltel Wireless this week.

We reviewed TeleNav’s service on a Sprint Katana Sanyo phone a few months ago, and found the service flawless while driving around the Bay Area. I even took it to remote Placerville in the Sierra foothills and it was accurate on backwoods rural roads. The only exception was driving in downtown San Francisco, where tall buildings confused the signal.

I also wanted a way to connect the audio driving directions to my speakers, so, say, I can play loud music and then be interrupted when there is an important direction. Without a service like that sometimes the audio directions were hard to hear. The Telenav execs say they are working on these types of features.

There are a few other companies selling into this market as well, like Networks in Motion, which is behind Verizon’s VZ Navigator, and Wave Market.

Sadly, such new navigation techniques are in greater focus after the recent tragic loss of James Kim. As GPS technology improves, maybe we will all be a little safer in the future.