gTrax & Ship Tracker, telling it like it is
When I recently looked into the dismal-looking future of eLoran in the U.S., and read some of your comments to that entry, I felt obliged to write Secretary Napolitano asking her not to kill the Loran system. My most unusual, and hopefully persuasive, argument was that she would be serving her boss -- President Obama -- best by reversing a poor decision that he's endorsed, even crowed about. Telling it like it is, even when that's contrarian, is often the most constructive thing we can do for our friends and colleagues. It's in that spirit that I feel obliged today to note that my friends at gCaptain have introduced an iPhone AIS app that doesn't seem competitive...
The most important thing about a remote AIS viewer -- be it on the Web, or an iPhone, or wherever -- has to be the data feeds it uses. You're only going to see the targets that are being fed to the viewer by whatever local receivers it's networked to, and if they don't include the area or vessels you're interested in, all the other features don't mean much. A major plus for gTrax, as explained on gCaptain, is that it uses a commercial network of "redundant secure" receivers. But, geeze, that network doesn't seem very extensive, covering only about a dozen U.S. ports, and in some cases, like Boston, the port coverage seems pretty limited in range. Plus gTrax, which costs $5, only shows you port data in near real time once every 24 hours; to get a continuously streaming feed costs $10 per month, per port!
That fee structure may make sense to certain people who work around a particular port, assuming the feed is truly reliable, but others may be surprised when they compare gTrax to other AIS apps which use volunteer feeds, like Ship Finder. I did just that for several ports last night, and you can see some results in the screen shots above. Note how the San Francisco coverage seems very similar. Other port comparisons varied a lot -- gTrax covers New York well, for instance, while the Ship Finder coverage seen in that link above is, um, intermittent -- but right now Ship Finder seems to have a lot more coverage overall, and you get slightly delayed data for just $5, no subscriptions needed.
Note too how Ship Finder can "Lookup" a given vessel at MarineTraffic.com, and thus can often show photographs, track history, etc. (as I discovered recently). While that sort of database linking seems like one of the neat things an online AIS viewer can do, gTrax doesn't have any such features yet. Plus there's the matter of how that gCaptain link above appears to be offering t-shirts and Starbucks cards in exchange for good gTrax reviews at the iTunes App store. I think it was just an error of over enthusiasm, but you have to wonder about the eleven reviews -- all five star -- 'earned' so far.
However, poking around the app store also led me to discover another brand new AIS viewer called Ship Tracker, which may give Ship Finder some real competition. Information is a little sparse, but I spent $2 to try it and found some nice surprises, as shown below. Note how a vessel photo, if available, is shown with the basic info, and how a day's track is also available (if it was within receiver sight). This AIS site -- though in Greek -- show's the app's general coverage areas, which unfortunately favor Europe over the U.S. That may also be true of Fleetmon mobile, yet another new AIS viewing app. It costs $25, but the coverage area and added features seen on the Digital-Seas parent site look quite interesting. Online AIS and smart phone apps are both changing at breakneck speed, and you may have to be a curmungeonly contrarian to keep things sorted.