The phone as GPS (and lots more)

By Steve Outing

I finally succumbed to iPhone fever and got an iPhone 3G the other day. While I’ve been thinking about the expanded mobile footprint in our lives for a while, having this thing in my hands really brings the future into focus.

One big thing that the iPhone represents is the lessening of gadgets that we carry, since the phone now does so much. I used to carry my phone and an iPod when I went out for a run; now I just need the iPhone since it doubles as an iPod. I don’t need to pack a small camera if I go on a mountain bike ride; the iPhone will suffice to take snapshots. (Actually, the iPhone is better than a camera in some ways. While the resolution isn’t as good as a stand-alone camera, with the iPhone I can take a photo, have it mark my position using the built-in GPS, and send the photo to my Flickr account and/or to Twitter.)

Another gadget I sometimes carry is a Garmin handheld GPS unit, for when I want to have a map and statistical record of a trail I’m riding. But it’s kind of big and I don’t use it all the time. (And I broke it once on a mountain bike ride when it was mounted on the handlebars and I crashed.) But now I’m using a new iPhone application called RunKeeper ($9.99), which for some exercise uses replaces the Garmin. RunKeeper tracks my runs or bike rides, telling me how far I’ve traveled, what speed I’m going, average speed, and it produces a map of the route when I’m finished.

What’s very cool is that RunKeeper automatically sends my data off to its website, so when I get home and sit at my computer, I see my stats and a Google map of my route. The site stores all my runs and rides.

RunKeeper is new, and it’s not perfect. The iPhone GPS sometimes drops the signal; the software doesn’t track elevation gain/loss, which is a critical data element to any runner or cyclist. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles that a Polar heartrate monitor (yet another exercise gadget I own) has. Worst of all, it can only record about 3 hours of trail activity, because the iPhone’s battery can’t handle more; so it’s only useful for short trail adventures, not epic all-day ones.

But RunKeeper (1.0) is a good start, and I’m eager to see how it improves with future releases. The software does get us closer to the day that a phone can be a decent GPS unit. The iPhone isn’t there yet, but I’m confident it will get there soon enough.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!