GPS is everywhere around us today. Each of us carries a powerful GPS receiver with them all the time capable of not just showing our exact location but also enabling us to use all kinds of location-based services and one of many free navigation platforms. Yup, the GPS receiver we are talking about is a smartphone and the marriage between smartphones and GPS gave birth to the unmatched popularity GPS technology has today. Let’s look at the history of GPS technology in smartphones, from the humble beginnings when a GPS receiver was no more than just another battery hog with extremely limited usability to modern days when we simply cannot imagine a cell phone without one.

During the nineties, GPS technology was still out of commercial reach partly because standalone receivers were extremely expensive and partly because the US government while allowing the use of GPS in commercial and non-commercial purposes, had purposely degraded the accuracy of GPS signal so it couldn’t be of use to other armies based around the world. GPS could be used by civilians but mostly by adventurers, mountaineers and other people who would use GPS receivers in order to get location coordinates and in order to be able to send their location to rescue teams in the case of an accident.

Car manufacturers began to implement GPS navigation systems back in 1994 but, because of the inaccuracy of the system when used by civilian sector, these navigation systems were more used for marketing purposes than for real, accurate turn by turn navigation. The first cell phone equipped with a GPS receiver was the Benefon Esc! and while the phone had a GPS it couldn’t be used for navigation. The purpose of the receiver was to send user location in case of an emergency and the phone wasn’t capable of providing any sort of navigation services.

alt Benefon ESC!

The same year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order that contained guidelines for the implementation of E911 (enhanced 911 service). The E911 would allow emergency operators to automatically receive the location of 911 callers. The E911 technology was extremely important for the implementation of GPS in cellphones because in 2000 the US government decided to end its practice of purposeful GPS signal degradation, paving way for the standalone GPS devices capable of precise navigation. This decision also pushed forward the development of smaller GPS receivers that could be installed in any mobile device and that used less and less power.

In the coming years, smartphones weren’t embracing GPS receivers in troves mostly because having one was just too expensive compared to what you’d got. Remember, back in the day Google Maps was just an idea in the mind of a couple of entrepreneurs located in Silicon Valley and all GPS navigation software was expensive and required users to pay extra for each additional map. But while Series 60 (Symbian) devices didn’t have GPS, most Windows Mobile, Palm, and Blackberry had one because those were top tier, expensive devices and they had to have all of the latest technology crammed inside them. But the usage of GPS hardware came at a cost because GPS receivers were huge battery hogs and back them smartphones and pocket PCs had much smaller batteries than what we have today and GPS chips were much larger and needed much more power to work. Sure, you could use a mobile device for navigation but that would mean a – you had to pay lots of money for a navigation app and b – your battery would die in about half an hour.


The main GPS devices were those that could be used in vehicles and they lived through their prime years during the period between 2001-2008. They were larger than smartphones and pocket PCs and had much beefier batteries. Also, the software found in them was usually pre-built and the cost of the software was a part of the final price of a GPS device meaning that users felt like they haven’t paid extra for the use of the navigation software. But then, in 2008 three events cemented the place of a GPS receiver in each and every smartphone; Apple introduced iPhone 3G equipped with GPS, Android landed with the first device (HTC Dream) supporting GPS, and Google introduced Google Maps app for Android.


From then on, the usage of GPS navigation in smartphones simply exploded. Maps app of the iOS became one of the most popular apps for iPhone users because they could use its location service and navigation completely free of charge, which was a revolution in the smartphone world. Additionally, Google Maps didn’t feature advanced turn-by-turn navigation at first but its location features were enough for most people to use it to locate important landmarks or find their way in a new city. The market exploded and since 2008 almost every smartphone came equipped with a GPS receiver.

From then on more and more apps and services introduced location-based features. Foursquare launched in 2009 and was among the first apps based on GPS location service. Millions of people used Foursquare’s check-in feature and all of them had a phone equipped with a GPS receiver. Year after year more and more apps arrived that utilized GPS receivers found in smartphones for a plethora of options and features. But back then standalone GPS devices were still fairly popular because the best GPS navigation apps were still paid-for and were still fairly limited on the iOS and Android.


But starting with 2010, free navigation software has evolved to be as good as paid apps, pushing users away from standalone GPS devices. Google Maps and HERE maps from Nokia changed the landscape once they become good enough to completely replace paid apps and by 2010 anyone could use a quality GPS navigation software for free. GPS became one of the most popular parts of each smartphone with millions of people using it for daily navigation while commuting to work, or for travel purposes. GPS tracking apps are also becoming more and more popular and they are all smartphone-based.

alt Google Maps for iOS

So today, most of us have a GPS receiver in our pockets and we all use it on a daily basis. GPS technology become ubiquitous in today’s world and that wouldn’t happen in case smartphones weren’t invented, or in case Google and Nokia didn’t create excellent free navigation apps. Before the smartphone boom in late 2000’s GPS technology was a niche tech used by drivers for navigation and not for much else, but since the rise of touchscreen smartphones, GPS gradually become one of the most used and most important pieces of technology in today’s world. And the marriage between smartphones and GPS will surely last until smartphones get replaced by another class of mobile devices, which will also be equipped with GPS technology.