Global positioning system (GPS) technology can be a useful tool for small-to-mid-sized businesses, helping salespeople quickly navigate to appointments, or in some cases, allowing management to monitor a fleet of drivers or their deliveries.

But while some companies opt for a standalone GPS system, many are finding additional benefits by pairing the technology with telecommunications. A new genre of cell phones comes with integrated GPS receivers.

Should your business opt for an all-in-one solution? It depends upon what your business has to gain, say the industry analysts. GPS provides access to plethora of services – visible and audible directions, maps that you can pan and zoom, points of interest, and time and distance estimates. The question is whether you want these services on a mobile phone.

Here's a quick look at the pros and cons to help you decide:

The argument for GPS phones

The first advantage to a GPS phone is cost, says Chris Hazelton, senior analyst for mobile device technology and trends at IDC Research, a Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm. “A benefit to a phone with GPS is you don’t have to pay for, support, and carry two separate devices,” says Hazelton. “And updating maps is easier as you can do it wirelessly on the device.”

Depending on the mobile needs of the business, monitoring services are also becoming popular in GPS-enabled cell phones, where managers can determine the geographical position of the device and therefore an employee or a company vehicle. “So long as the employees know about it and consent to it," Hazelton says, "it could be a useful tool.” Some employees balk at using GPS tracking devices on the job, such as New York City taxi drivers, who went on strike for a few days in September to oppose the addition of tracking devices in yellow taxis.

Another advantage to your business with GPS-based mobile phone services such as the popular TeleNav, found in many BlackBerrys, is that you or your employees can conduct local searches relevant to your position. Say you want to take a client out for lunch, and she’s in the mood for Italian, with a few button presses you can find the nearest trattoria. 

Finally, GPS phones with integrated Bluetooth can be handy for hearing turn-by-turn directions in your wireless headset. They can also allow you to tap on a point of interest icon -- such as a restaurant, gas station or hotel -- and the number is automatically dialed on your phone.

The case against GPS phones

While it might be less expensive to purchase one device instead of two, cell phone-based GPS solutions require an ongoing fee, roughly $10 per month per phone. “We’re talking about a service model instead of a product model,” says Hazelton. The good news with having the service on a phone is that “at least you get the regular map updates and you can use the service outside of the vehicle, too.”

As far as maps, a standalone GPS device with internal memory can store maps for the entire continent, says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, a New York-based technology advisory firm. “Unlike phones," he says, "standalone GPS devices ship with full maps, at least with all of the U.S. and Canada, and with room to spare, which is convenient to have downloaded already.”

Another issue, says Hazelton, is that GPS phones often require a cell signal in order to determine the location, compared to standalone GPS devices that communicate with satellites directly. “Therefore if you’re lost in the middle of a forested area and there are no cell towers around," he says, "your GPS service might not be able to help you.”

There are other inherent issues with a converged mobile device:

  • battery life usually suffers (especially with wireless radios turned on),
  • if one feature on the phone requires repair, the user is without the entire device,
  • and a product that attempts to perform multiple functions doesn’t always do as good as a job as standalone devices.

Lastly, the small screen size on a cell phone might be a turn-off. “So instead of a 4- or 5-inch screen as with a standalone GPS device, it’s a more like a 1- or 2-inch screen on a phone, therefore it’s more of an audible tool,” Gartenberg says.