Though it is widely used in the West, not many here use the navigation function on their smartphones due to a variety of factors. But that can be fixed, writes Karthik Subramanian

There are two things that work against using your smartphone for map navigation while driving your car: comfort, because without the right stand, it would even be dangerous to keep referring to the turn-by-turn navigation; and battery life, because constantly using the GPS chip to track one's movement on the map drains the battery.

But with the right stand (I know this sounds flippant but this is often the key) and a good cigarette lighter charger that will constantly charge your phone as it plots your position on the map using GPS, the smartphone actually has several advantages over the in-dash GPS navigation systems that could cost quite a bit.

For starters, the navigation Apps available for free in the App market places for one's mobile phone are far superior to those that come pre-loaded in some of the in-dash GPS navigation systems. These also get frequent updates and integrate crowd-sourced data that would provide as much or probably even more points of interest (PoI) than some of the paid Apps.

Despite almost every phone these days coming pre-loaded with default maps and navigation Apps — Google Maps on Android phones, Apple Maps on iPhone, Nokia Here on Lumia phones — the undeniable fact is that maps and navigation in Indian conditions are nowhere near comparable to what is available in the West, especially the U.S. There are plenty of reasons for this, but most important is probably the active contribution users make to these maps in terms of crowd-sourced user information.

Navigation App

A Chennai-based company Route Star GPS Navigation is attempting to work out a solution where smartphone based navigation becomes more widely used. Their navigation App is available for free download on the Android App store, and they offer a 24x7 call centre service. How it works is simple: users who have downloaded the 'Route Star GPS Navigation' App can opt for a 'call back' option from within the App and tell the call centre executive their destination. The call centre will then mark the user's current location on Google Maps, their destination, and even mark a suggested route.

Route Star's managing director Dr. N. Raja Chinnathamby says the inspiration to simplify smartphone navigation came a few years ago, when he was on a road trip to Kerala, and found the GPS system available on his in-dash car unsuitable for use. “Sometimes the maps get the destinations wrong or even the routing can be completely wrong because the algorithms that plot the route often don't take into account how people will act. We don't always take the shortest routes, and there is no knowing how good or bad the roads are on some routes.”

According to Mr. Raja, the ideal solution for Indian conditions is a mix of technology and human guidance, and he sees a proposition in his service for frequent travellers who like to be in the driver's seat. Though the company's Android App right now depends on 'online' Google Maps service, they are building offline navigation App using OpenStreets Maps. While the App is free to download, there is a subscription service for those who want the call centre services.

In addition to routing services, the company plans to include value-added services such as emergency response, hotel bookings, reservations for cinema, etc. to its core services, which revolves around location tracking.

Essentially what Route Star attempts is to do things that some of us, if not all of us, can do by ourselves. But, interestingly, there seems to be a precedent for this sort of call-center backed navigation services. Chevrolet runs 'Onstar turn-by-turn Navigation' service in the U.S., incorporating its proprietary on-deck systems in its cars.

Mr. Raja says often it is the hardware cost that makes such services expensive in the developing markets. Instead, he says Route Star offers a simple starter pack, inclusive of a good stand and a charger that can be incorporated to work with an Android phone or tablet.

Either Route Star's solution or any customer's DIY (do it yourself) kit could transform their smartphone into a handy navigation device. For details about Route Star Navigation, visit www.routestar.in