SAN FRANCISCO – Internet search leader Google Inc. is testing technology that will find the location of people using its mobile mapping service, even if the phone making the connection isn't equipped with a GPS receiver.
The new tracking feature introduced Wednesday is being touted as an added convenience because it will enable people on the go to skip the task of typing a starting address on a mobile handset's small keys when they turn to Google's maps for guidance.
Using the technology, dubbed "My Location," simply requires pressing zero on a mobile handset equipped with the new software. The sender's location shows up as a blue dot on Google's mobile maps.
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The tracking system isn't set up to collect a user's phone number or any other personal information that would reveal a person's identity, said Steve Lee, product manager for Google's mobile maps.
As a safeguard, the feature can be turned off at any time by simply clicking on a link in the help menu.
Those assurances probably will alleviate privacy concerns raised about the new service, said analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence.
After trying out "My Location" on a Blackberry device, Sterling predicted people will embrace it. He called it "an incremental improvement but still meaningful."
Unlike GPS, Google's tracking feature works while handsets are indoors. "My Location" also drains less power from a phone's battery than a GPS receiver does.
On the downside, Google's service isn't as precise as GPS. In most instances, Google hopes to get within one-quarter to three miles of a user's location — close enough to provide helpful "neighborhood-level" information, Lee said.
The database that identifies the location of a mobile phone is still under construction, so the service still sometimes draw a blank. The company expects to fill in the holes as more people use the service, Lee said.
The tracking system's database currently spans more than 20 countries, including United States, much of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Russian Federation and Taiwan. It doesn't yet work in China or Japan.
By knowing more about a mobile phone's location, Google conceivably could make more money displaying ads from nearby businesses hoping to lure in more customers. The Mountain View-based company currently doesn't plan to show ads on mobile maps but may in the future, Lee said.
Already the owner of the most lucrative advertising network on the Internet, Google eventually hopes to do a better job of mining profits from the mobile Web.
To help realize that goal, Google plans to introduce a new mobile software package called Android next year in an attempt to make its online services more accessible to people while they're away from computers at home or the office.
Although a growing number of so-called smart phones come with GPS receivers, Google estimates that about 85 percent of mobile handsets now in use don't have the satellite-powered technology.
Google's alternative will work on most smart phones, including the Blackberry and the latest generation of Nokia handsets. But it's still not compatible with the iPhone, Motorola Q, Samsung Blackjack and Palm Treo 700w and other models.