Happy Birthday GPS

GPS-Satellite_1The Global Positioning System turns 2o years old today.  On July 17, 1995 GPS was declared fully operational, marking its official start as a positioning utility, provided free of charge by the US Government. Fourteen days later, on August 1, 1995, I started work at Trimble Navigation, running marketing for the OEM Division, my first day in my first job in the location business.

The “birthday” of GPS is somewhat misleading.  GPS satellites had been deployed since 1978, but the constellation had not been fully populated or fully operational. By 1995, there was already a growing industry in surveying, marine and military. Trimble was a public company, having IPOed largely on the strength of military demand from the first Gulf war. The OEM division at Trimble was pioneering a relatively new concept:  that there would be a business selling embedded GPS receivers into all manner of devices on an OEM basis.

Seems pretty obvious today but in 1995 it wasn’t. To start, no one knew what GPS was. If you tried to explain it to them at a cocktail party, they lost interest. Quickly. Trust me. The performance was horrible. The accuracy was intentionally degraded to 30m to protect US military superiority. It didn’t work except in full view of the sky. And a key spec was Time to First Fix (TTFF). The unit of measurement was minutes. You would literally stand there for several minutes before it could tell you where you were. And it was expensive.  Our average selling price for a business-card sized printed circuit board was $250, which didn’t include the mandatory patch antenna. Power. Size. All issues.

Sounds promising? Actually it was, because for the first time, you could light up this device and locate yourself anywhere on earth.  That was pretty cool. Even with the problems we had back then, you could see this revolutionizing the way things worked.  There were a lot of things to be worked out and some major breakthroughs, including:

  • The invention of A-GPS by Snaptrack to speed up acquisition.

    Nextel i88
  • Turning off Selective Availability to get better accuracy (thanks Mr. Hillary Clinton).
  • High performance semiconductors, starting with the SiRFstar3, which was so much better than anything before.
  • The first mass market device to popularize the technology: the Personal Navigation Device (hat tip TomTom, Garmin, Mitac and others).
  • Fusion location combining GPS with WiFi to give location (Skyhook and others)
  • First introduction into a cell phone with the Nextel i88
  • The iPhone…of course. Made GPS the norm in cell phones and showed app developers how to use it.
  • Complementary mapping, cloud computing and device technology to make it all work (not even gonna start that list).
  • And several others that I’m sure I will be reminded of (1).

In all, a pretty amazing and long journey. Today we use it daily, in almost any mobile application oaq5qon the phone, in the car and increasingly in small connected sensors. We expect to know where we are, exactly, in sub-second time. We don’t even really think about it and are frustrated that it doesn’t follow us indoors with the same accuracy. It’s a long way from where it was 20 years ago.

So to all the folks that made it happen, I raise a glass and applaud your efforts.  I have had the great privilege of knowing many of the people in the industry over the years.  It is the consistent quality of the people in the industry and their ability to keep changing the game that keeps me coming back.

Happy Birthday GPS.

(1) I suspect many of those major breakthroughs happened in the years before 1995, but someone else is going to have to write that post.