“For example my wife — who in a way was military issue, but that’s another story — works on a large military installation and just informed me this week that the U.S. government, in all its wisdom, has decided that programs like MapQuest, Google Maps and Google Street Maps will no longer be authorized on military and government computers.” –Don Jewell, GPS World

Don Jewell, GPS World, reports:

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

An old running gag line in the military that evidently started somewhere back around WWII, but in fact has probably been true of military life and the philosophy surrounding it since the first soldier swore allegiance, goes like this: “Look, Wilkowski, if the military wanted you to have a wife they would have issued you one.”

That same philosophy still permeates the military establishment today. And the decisions this philosophy generates are sometimes hard to comprehend.

For example my wife — who in a way was military issue, but that’s another story — works on a large military installation and just informed me this week that the U.S. government, in all its wisdom, has decided that programs like MapQuest, Google Maps and Google Street Maps will no longer be authorized on military and government computers.

You can log onto the sites but you just can’t download any files with map extensions. This essentially makes the sites worthless for maps or directions. Try to download maps or directions on a military computer and you get a warning message informing you that these sites are not authorized.

In other words, government IT departments across the board now block access to anything remotely useful on these Internet mapping web sites. I can certainly understand and support the government wanting to block access to pornography, music, and shopping sites, but cutting off all United States military and government users from all mapping sites in ludicrous and extremely shortsighted.

Does this make any sense? What Einstein made this decision?

And yes, before those cards and letters start coming from all my techno-geek friends, I know that malicious files can be embedded in graphic files. But the solution is to protect against those malicious files, not deny access to sites that provide what has become a must-have utility for accomplishing government business.
Stranger than Fiction. Let’s play out a supposedly fictional scenario that may already have happened in real life (hint, hint). I’ve made it fictional to protect the guilty and the clueless.

A certain general officer is scheduled to speak at a nearby (within a hundred miles or so) small town during a Christmas ceremony honoring returning war veterans. No problem, but he has personally never been to this small town before, and his conscientious staff is busy putting a travel package together for him so all goes smoothly.

This is a normal sequence of events for a general officer’s staff, and all proceeds as planned right up to the point where they try to find directions and a map of the small town in question. His trusty secretary logs on to the Internet and goes to her favorite mapping site for maps and directions to this small town only to be informed, in no uncertain terms, that access to all mapping sites and sites with directions to this small town are verboten!

Time is short, so being resourceful, she settles for a page from an atlas with a 20,000-foot view of the town and photocopies it — probably violating several copyright laws in the process — and then she proceeds to call someone from the small town who vaguely knows where the big military base is located, and who gives her directions to the small town. You know the kind of directions I mean: turn left at the Piggly Wiggly and when you get to the fork in the road, take it. Those kind of directions.

Needless to say, the general is running late as usual, and departs the military base with barely enough time to make it to the town for his speech and the welcoming ceremony for the veterans. But of course the directions are terrible, the map of no use, and he is of course late and embarrassed. The townspeople and returning veterans are left to wonder how much this general — and by extension, the military as a whole — really cares about them. And who believes the story about him getting lost anyway? The mayor of this small town was overheard to say, “Haven’t the military ever heard of MapQuest or Google Maps?”

All this transpired because some technocrat at the puzzle palace is worried about the bandwidth consumed by people looking for maps and directions to places they need to go and the malicious files that they might contain. If this is our government’s approved collective response to web-based malicious activities, then the bad guys have already won. We might as well fold up our advanced technology tent and retreat to the Stone Age.

But wait — this is GPS World magazine, so where is the GPS in this story? Don’t worry, here it comes.

Many of you are by now probably and hopefully thinking, all the general or his aide had to do was put the destination into his GPS, and the day would have been won, calamity avoided. How true — but just what GPS is the general going to use? Certainly he will use a military GPS. What other choice does he have, because in all its infinite wisdom the U.S. government has also decreed that military members should only use approved, military-issue GPS devices.

So the general’s aide gets the military-approved GPS device out of his bottom drawer and proceeds to input the information about the small town into the unit, only to discover that the battery is dead. Simple solution, just put in new batteries. But wait, the batteries are not D cells, C cells, A, AA, or even AAA, but are indeed a battery proprietary to the military, and there is no spare and the battery in the unit needs to be charged for 12 hours before use.
Plan B. Sound familiar? OK, backup plan. The military always has one. Right?

The military GPS unit amazingly enough has a car charger unit. Lucky day, we are in business, thinks the aide. By this time the general is ready to leave, late as usual, and they race down to the car and immediately get on their way — but on their way to where? The map says the small town is in a generally westerly direction from the military base, so in true Horace Greeley fashion, the only solution is to “Head West, young man.” So westward they go, while the aide plugs in the GPS and prepares to input their destination, ideally the name of the small town.

Do you see the flaw in the backup plan yet? No? Keep reading.

The driver meanwhile has and is trying to make sense of the rather nebulous directions from the smalltown local, Piggly Wiggly and all that, and believes they are heading generally in the right direction. The general of course is totally oblivious to the shenanigans of his staff and just keeps asking “Are we there yet?” or more ominously, “What time will we arrive?” — the one question to which no one can give him an accurate answer.

Meanwhile, in the front seat the GPS is plugged in and finally turned on, and the dreaded message appears, “Downloading Almanac.” The general’s aide vaguely remembers hearing about this message and when he checks the manual he learns this could take up to thirty minutes, depending on the last time the unit was updated. So thirty minutes later, still heading west, the unit finally successfully downloads the almanac and is ready to display a position, which it does. Indeed the monochrome display — for military units would never have anything as modern or frivolous as a color display — is providing a position. The monochrome screen, which is very hard to read in the bright light coming from the sun rapidly setting in the West, says current position:

GPS Coordinates

Latitude: 38° 56.013′ N

Longitude: 104° 48′ W

Coordinate system=WGS84

Great! Lots of information, but in the present circumstances, totally useless.

So, a quick call back to the general’s secretary. She phones the small town and after several minutes manages to find the fire chief who, fittingly enough, knows the town’s coordinates. Super, problem solved, right? The aide inserts the town’s coordinates into waypoint “A” and voila, the GPS screen now shows an arrow pointing to their destination, which is 110 degrees back the way they came, about 20 miles and off to their left, or right when they finally turn around. But that’s all the information they have, no turns, no identifiable road names or intersections. But fortunately the general has a very competent driver and only one hour later they arrive at their destination.

Think I made this up? Have you ever heard the phrase, truth is stranger than fiction?

There are so many ways this scenario could have been avoided. But it really boils down to education: education about the importance of GPS, GNSS, maps, directions, and the Internet in our everyday lives. Why should government and military personnel in a war zone, or in peace time in the United States for that matter, have to do without tools that have become basic necessities in our everyday lives?
This Is What I Do. I don’t know about you, but I Google a destination and use MapQuest or Google Street Maps and similar Internet tools on an almost daily basis. When I am planning a trip, I put all my destinations (waypoints) into my GPS unit ahead of time and then when I depart I automatically expect my GPS to inform me of things like: ETA (estimated time of arrival) and keep it updated, when to turn, how far to the turn, how fast I am going, and provide alternate routes when necessary. By the way, I can use place names or coordinates interchangeably. My GPS unit accepts whatever type of input I have available. It will accept addresses beamed from my mobile phone in either Bluetooth or infrared plus my verbal commands. Not unreasonably, I expect my GPS unit to keep me informed about all this important information verbally. Indeed, I have come to expect it. I have my commercially available GPS unit programmed with a female British voice that gets my attention. She also tells me when I have made a wrong turn and how to get back on the route I should be on. She (I am anthropomorphizing here) will also direct me to my location using mostly freeways or no freeways at all.

Can our military GPS units do any of this? Does the name Jessica Lynch ring a bell?

Why should our military have to settle for second or third or fourth-best? Why shouldn’t they have the best units available anywhere?

The answer is simple, they should. But judging by the cards, letters, and emails I receive and the comments I hear from returning veterans, this is simply not the case.

I am still waiting for that first letter that says, “I love my military GPS unit.” Now this is not to say that military user equipment does not do the job in its own inimitable way. I am sure there are countless lives that have been saved by military GPS units and that’s as it should be. But I only wish they didn’t have to work at it so hard. I can drive from here (Colorado) to Santa Ana, California to the offices of GPS World with only my GPS and never look at a map. My readers tell me that a military GPS unit without a paper map to go with it is almost useless. They are definitely not satisfied users.
Satisfaction. Recently, GPS World ran a story about a J.D. Powers survey taken about the overall satisfaction of GPS users with their handheld, mobile or in-vehicle units. The story went like this:

?“Nearly two-thirds of PND [Portable or Personal Navigation Device] owners have experienced a problem with their unit, yet 95 percent still say that their device meets or exceeds their expectations.

The company released the results based on responses from 4,013 owners of automotive portable devices by brands such as Garmin, Magellan, Mio, and TomTom. It conducted the study in September and October of this year (2007).

The GPS survey measured customer satisfaction by examining six factors: ease of use, routing, system appearance, system speed, voice directions, and navigation display screen. Consumers reported the highest levels of satisfaction with PNDs’ overall appearance and voice directions, while system speed received the lowest satisfaction ratings.”

Wow! Imagine that, a 95 percent satisfaction rate for commercial GPS units. Can you name anything else you use that has a 95 percent satisfaction rating? I wonder what the satisfaction rating would be for military GPS user equipment.

My non-official survey based solely on the cards, letters, and emails I receive, leads me to believe that it would be just the opposite, or 95% of military users are not happy with their PNDs. This is unacceptable because while the commercial units are for our convenience, the military units are there to save lives.

That is exactly why I started my series of articles on the PHGPST or “Perfect Handheld GPS Transceiver’” nine months ago in this space. And thanks to all your cards, letters, and emails, I have a plethora of new ideas to consider. We will start that process again with the January newsletter.

Meanwhile, the next time you use MapQuest or Google or any of the other maps programs to print out a map or directions, remember that you are accomplishing what has become a normal everyday task for many of us, that the U.S. government is now forbidden to do. So when your friendly military or government POC asks you to fax directions and maps to your office or meeting location, please be understanding.

I have really enjoyed writing this column, conducting interviews, and doing product reviews for GPS World this year and look forward to the New Year ahead. Please keep those cards, letters, and emails coming.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. See you right here next month.