Mon 8 Dec 2008
At the launch of the iPhone over a year ago, I got excited about how good the iPhone was for transit riders, and I’m happy to say that it’s gotten even better in recent months.
First of all, the launch of the iPhone application store this July has led to unparalleled boom in the development of mobile client applications, including many more transit-related apps than ever before. I have a category for iPhone apps in the Headway Wiki, but new ones have been popping up faster than I can add them! A quick count shows about 100 transit-related apps in the U.S. store alone, mostly in the Navigation and Travel sections. The apps range from simple system map image browsers to apps that have full trip planners and real-time arrival estimates (particularly for systems that have opened up their data).
Why are we only seeing this rush now, when other kinds of smartphones have been around for the past 10 years or so? I think there are a few factors:
- The iTunes application store makes it dramatically easier to buy and install applications than on any other smartphone, and it’s straightforward for a developer to post an app and get a 70% cut of whatever price they choose. In a way, Apple has done for mobile applications what they had already done for music downloads.
- An iPhone app has several ways to determine where the user is, whether by GPS, Skyhook’s wi-fi base station database, or Google’s cell tower location system. This makes it possible for an app to automatically show the closest bus or subway station.
- The iPhone and iPod Touch present a uniform platform, where every device has the same screen size, and every device has a data connection at least some of the time. This simplifies the task of designing an application.
These things combine to create an attractive situation for would-be developers of mobile transit applications, and so far, the market seems to be thriving. I’m particularly happy that it’s brought several active new faces to the Transit Developer community (and that several of the iPhone apps use public GTFS data feeds from agencies).
The other exciting development is one that I’m happy to have had a hand in: the addition of public transit and walking directions to the iPhone’s built-in Google Maps. It’s great to have public transportation as a first-class citizen of the iPhone, so that transit directions are just as easy to get as driving directions. Besides being incredibly convenient for regular riders like me, this has the potential to raise awareness of the transit option to people who might not have considered it before. I’ve been seeing a lot of great feedback to that effect on Twitter—here’s one example:
New subway and bus schedules in google maps on the iPhone = amazing. Just saved me a cab ride. –leemhoffman
Of course, iPhone Maps only gives transit directions in areas where the agency or operator has made their schedule data available to Google. This can lead to odd situations like the one in London, where Google Maps has commuter coach information from Traveline South East, but no information from Transport for London on the tube or the city buses. However, the list of covered regions continues to expand almost every week, as more agencies see the value of publishing their schedules for Google and other application developers to use.
What about the other smartphone platforms? Symbian, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile are all still quite viable, and I have no doubt that the success of Apple’s app store will spur the development of easier ways to create and distribute apps on those platforms. Hopefully this will expand the market for third-party transit apps there. (It’s also worth noting that they all have their own versions of Google Maps for mobile with public transit directions already.)
The new Android system isn’t available on many phones yet, but it does have a decent app store and standard location APIs, so I expect to see many more third-party transit apps there as the platform becomes more common. Unlike the iPhone, it also allows programs to run in the background while the user is doing other things, meaning that it’s possible to build applications that can monitor the progress of your bus or train and sound an alarm when it’s time to leave the house.
In any case, these are exciting times for the mobile phone market, and ultimately transit riders will continue to benefit by getting better information on the go.