Tablet Computers vs. Smartphones: Which Is the GIS Tool of the Future?October 20, 2010By: Eric Gakstatter
Although tablet computers have been around for more than a decade, without a doubt, 2010 is the Year of the Tablet Computer. Interestingly enough, 2010 is arguably the Year of the Smartphone. Which one will come out on top?
Most authors would tease the reader and have the audience read the entire article before revealing the answer. Nope, not me. I think that smartphones are going to take the GIS prize. But...it doesn't mean that tablet computers are on their way out. On the contrary, tablet computer sales are going to continue to substantially increase. Here is an interesting fact that I read in the past couple of days. Sixty percent of Apple Computer's sales are from products that did not existthree years ago according to a blog post at www.asymco.com. Check out the following chart:
The blog author, Horace Dediu, notes that prior to 2001, the orange band (Mac computers) was all that Apple had to sell. The iPod was introduced in 2001 and, of course, that changed Apple forever, but look at how relatively insignificant iPod sales are today.
Also, take a look at the iPhone (green) and iPad (dark blue) sales on the chart. I think that summarizes the growth of tablet and smartphones not only for Apple, but for the industry in general.
Both smartphones and tablet computers will be used widely for GIS, both for data collection and deploying GIS apps. But at the end of the day, the mobile phone is such a ubiquitous device. Of course, not everyone has a smart mobile phone, but that's changing. International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that worldwide smartphone shipments will increase to 269.6 million in 2010, up 55.4 percent from 2009.
To offer some perspective, smartphones shipments are still less than one quarter of all mobile phone shipments. Global mobile phone shipments in Q2 2010 were 308 million units and growing at about 13 percent over Q2 2009, according to Strategic Analytics.
Twice this week I've had readers e-mail me with questions/comments regarding smartphones for GIS data collection. To me, there are two issues that hinder GIS data collection using smart phones.
1. The smartphone operating systems. There are two many of them. Symbian, iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, RIM (BlackBerry), PalmOS, etc.
The software developers can't afford to support every operating system. You can say what you want about Microsoft, but the Windows operating system for desktop computers has really made it easy (and relatively cheap) for software developers and has been a tremendous benefit to society in the last 15 years.
Too many different operating systems on smartphones makes it difficult for GIS software developers. They end up supporting one and it is usually the one they think has the best chance of success in the future (or is easiest to support). At this point, Windows Mobile is the platform of choice. Ironically, Windows Mobile only accounts for about 10 percent of the market share. Take a look at the chart below from Canalys.
Granted, the chart is dated, and I bet the iPhone, Android and Windows numbers are a bit higher now, but you see the problem.
If you're a software developer and you have to decide which operating system(s) to support, which one(s) do you choose?
2. Limited GPS and Bluetooth support.
If you've ever used the GPS functionality in a smartphone, it's very convenient. I don't always have my PND (Portable Navigation Device) with me, but I always have my phone with me. If I need directions, I just crank up the Sprint Navigation software, type in the address, and viola! Granted, the GPS chip takes a few minutes to fire up and its responsiveness isn't what my PND delivers, but it gets me to where I want to go and it is super-convenient.
Given the convenience, it's not surprising that, when geospatial people find out their smartphone has GPS capability, they start thinking about how it can be used for GIS data collection. At that point, accuracy becomes an issue. For citizen reporting such as City Sourced app, the smartphone's internal GPS chip is just fine. But, for someone wanting higher accuracy GPS data such as 1-3 meters or even sub-meter accuracy, the smartphone internal GPS chip can't do it, not even close.
Ok, no problem. Just connect via Bluetooth to a separate, high-performance Bluetooth GPS receiver, right? Not so fast.
The smartphone makers don't do a very good job of supporting Bluetooth. Typically, they provide Bluetooth support for hands-free ear buds and other common accessories, but not general-purpose Bluetooth devices like a GPS receiver. What a pain. So close, yet so far. Imagine being able to run your favorite GIS data collection program on your smartphone and having high-accuracy GPS receiver bluetoothed to your phone? That would be a pretty cost-effective solution.
Maybe someday. Actually, I think that day will come. Hurry up!
Thanks, and see you next week.
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