Since its inception, the mobile phone has been usurping the roles of other electronic devices in a bid to become the universal, do-all gizmo.
First the fixed-line phone came under attack, followed by the watch, the radio, the MP3 player, the game console, the computer and, most recently, the GPS device. But while GPS-equipped mobile phones have become common, functionality has remained limited. And it has been difficult to get the data off the phone and onto a computer, where it can be easily charted and viewed.
Nokia has been working on smoothing out those problems. Its new software, called Sports Tracker, collects GPS data and uploads it over a wireless network to a Web site.
It was balmy near Lake Como last Sunday when I put Sports Tracker to the test, in an effort to see how far cell phones had come in marrying their wireless possibilities with GPS.
I decided long ago to leave my watch at home in daily life, but I still have been wearing one when I go hiking, where its altimeter, barometer and compass come in handy. Now it was time to see if my hiking watch could be retired, too.
Armed with my Nokia N82 - Sports Tracker works with about 40 other Nokia GPS-enabled phones - I set out on my favorite day hike near Milan, where I live. It is a 35-kilometer, or 22-mile, undulating trail that crosses the mountains from Como to Bellagio with views down to Lake Como, across to Switzerland and over to the Alps.
As I began walking, I turned on the phone and started up Sports Tracker. I had downloaded the free software to my computer and then transferred it to my phone, using a USB cable (you can also download directly to the phone).
Sports Tracker shows the distance traveled, the altitude, the average speed and a host of other data that can be accessed during and after the activity. With a few clicks, everything is sent to www.sportstracker.nokia.com, where a line tracks the route on Google maps, and the photos and videos appear pinned to the map at the spot where they were taken. The activity can be tracked on the Web site if you choose to make it public, and a Sports Tracker box can be added to a Facebook page.
Though fully operational, Sports Tracker is still in its testing stage.
"We developed Sports Tracker for conventional sports like running, cycling and walking, but we're seeing it used by people doing all kinds of activities," said Jussi Kaasinen, who created Sports Tracker for Nokia with Yka Huhtala. "Some guys use it for paragliding, and they have special requirements for their GPS device, so they let us know and we added that."
There are similar, competing programs, including iTrail for the Apple iPhone (which costs $2.99), but Nokia's Sports Tracker collects more information, which is then easier to move to a computer. Sports Tracker is not without limitations, though; as with many GPS units, altitude measurements are sometimes erratic, especially when in a forest or among tall buildings.
The biggest limitation might be the GPS unit's power consumption. Two-thirds of the way into the eight-hour hike, my phone went black, even though I had not made or received any calls and had taken only a handful of photos.
"We're constantly working on improving the program, and power consumption is one of the things we are looking at," Huhtala said.
Kaasinen and Huhtala would not specify how many people had downloaded Sports Tracker, though Kaasinen did say "we're talking about seven-digit numbers."
Given a little more time to refine Sports Tracker and reduce its battery demands, Nokia may win another battle in its drive to make the cellphone the universal device. But I'm not ready to retire my hiking watch just yet.
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