Doreen Rosimos of Marlborough, N.H., brought along her Rottweiler, Zelda, when she went on an assignment in Kentucky.
When Zelda became sick one day, Rosimos, who heads a firm that funds micro-enterprises, quickly typed "veterinarian" into her car's global-positioning device (GPS), and found one nearby within minutes. The emergency surgery saved Zelda's life. "I never would have found it without the GPS," she says.
Rosimos is one of a growing number of travelers who increasingly rely on GPS and other navigation tools to cope with unfamiliar places and unplanned situations. They're using directions and traffic alerts, scouting pizzerias, comparing prices of nearby gas stations, receiving weather reports and spotting friends who happen to be in the same city.
"The phone is becoming the lifestyle device, and navigation is almost a foundational service. People expect it to be a part of their plan," says Scott Lane of Sprint.
Portable GPS devices are seeing "explosive growth," says Tom Murray of TomTom, a GPS device manufacturer. About 10 million GPS devices were sold in North America last year, vs. 2.5 million in 2006, and the industry is on track to sell 20 million this year, TomTom's Murray says.
The sector is also being fueled by other technological enhancements, such as faster wireless networks and improved phone screen graphics, as well as an increased overall familiarity with car GPS devices.
An army of start-up software companies is aggressively pitching products to the wireless carriers in hopes of being able to sell to their customers.
For instance, uLocate sells 70 programs that can be downloaded from its website, Where.com. The lineup includes an airport finder, flight-time updater and gas station locator. Google held a software competition for its mobile browser, Android.
Navigational tools are still works in progress, says Brian Dolan, editor of Yankee Group's Mobile Internet Trends. Some services, such as traffic alerts, can be spotty. Wireless carriers also dictate the services you can access and steer you to their preferred list of products.
"You can get to Yahoo and Google map (through an Internet browser on your phone), but it's not easy. It's not unintentional," says Lonnie Arima of Navteq, a maker of online maps and other navigation content.
Mobile phones' operating systems can also be confusing, as each carrier's system differs from competitors, and they have widely varying price plans.
Where.com, for instance, is free for Sprint customers, but $2.99 a month for Alltel and AT&T customers.
VZ Navigator, offered by Verizon Wireless, charges $2.99 per day, or $9.99 per month, but the day option isn't available for BlackBerrys.
Moreover, the sensitive issue of who can track whom via GPS devices — and for what purposes — is still being worked out.
"Location-based services is one of the most popular and powerful tools you can run on your cellphone," says Steve Andler of Networks In Motion, which powers Verizon Wireless' primary GPS-based service, VZ Navigator. "There's got to be some control over privacy that users have control over."