Apple’s iPad and LBS?

The hotly debated iPad tablet features a built-in GPS-receiver.More precisely the 3G version does, the Wi-Fi only version has to do without, similar to the iTouch. This is yet another example of how GPS is spreading to an ever larger number of portable devices following its appearance in digital cameras, netbooks, and MIDs. Equally important, it is based on the same platform as the iPhone allowing it – in theory at least - to run more than 4000 LBS applications available on the App Store. Unfortunately the iPad inherits the same major iPhone shortcoming of not supporting background processing. It remains to be seen though how these applications will cope with the higher 1024-by-768 screen resolution. Undoubtedly developers will have to tweak their apps to accommodate the higher resolution – or design apps from scratch for the iPad -, the start of fragmentation of the much applauded monolithic iPhone platform.

More importantly, which LBS applications and/or use cases come to mind when thinking of a 9.7 inch tablet? Turn-by-turn navigation? ABI’s New Navigation Form Factors Research Brief describes alternative navigation form factors such as netbooks, MIDS and UMPCs. The iPad certainly fits in this list, though its size preempts the use for pedestrian navigation and installation on the dashboard for in-car navigation seems equally unlikely, perhaps with the exception of large vehicles such as motor homes or for use by passengers.

What about other LBS services such as local search or social networking? The lack of portability of a 9.7 inch screen device essentially limits the use cases to indoor environments and hence reduces its potential for LBS. By the way, indoor GPS performance is notoriously bad, although complementary Wi-Fi and Cell-ID based positioning largely addresses this shortcoming. Nevertheless, adding location awareness to a tablet device does remain useful for location-based information such as weather or advertising.

Arguable the main benefit of a large tablet form factor is the possibility to display detailed maps including 3D landmarks, satellite imagery, photographic “StreetView” content or even topographic maps all of which suffer from bad readability on small smartphone screens.While a digital compass is included, a digital camera is lacking precluding any augmented reality applications.

Clearly the positioning of the tablet form factor between the fully portable phone and the static desktop remains challenging, caught in the dilemma between portability and ease of use. This is largely uncharted territory for both Apple and the end user. One thing is clear though: Apple has put the tablet form factor firmly on the map, keen to improve and/or redefine earlier incarnations by other vendors with the availability of GPS only being one of the many features allowing developers to come up with innovative use cases and applications. Who would dare to state Apple will not be able to pull off yet another win?