Software // Enterprise Applications
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7/30/2004
00:07 AM
Carl Zetie
Carl Zetie
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Location Services Find Their Way To The Enterprise

Phone handsets and GPS-enabled hardware are ushering in a new wave of location-based services, Carl Zetie says. It's 2 p.m., do you know where your employees are?

It's taken a long time and a lot of false starts, but location-based services are experiencing remarkably rapid growth at long last. And contrary to many expectations, it's employees in the enterprise, not consumers, that are seeing the most benefits.

A few years ago, at the height of the Internet bubble, there were optimistic predictions that location would be the spark that would start the fire of consumer "wireless Internet" adoption. Few of the proposed uses were actually that compelling from the user's point of view, though, with the exception of navigation systems. Several proposals revolved around location-based advertising: you're walking down the street, you pass a dry cleaner's storefront, and an alert offering you a special discount at the dry cleaner gets pushed to your phone.

Never mind that most of these ideas made no sense (what are you expected to do, take off the jacket and pants you're wearing and spontaneously take them in for cleaning? Or perhaps walk around with a spare coat in case you happen to pass a dry cleaner with a special offer?). Ignore the fact that most of these ideas would be no more effective than a well-designed poster in the window. And don't even think about what would happen if location-based advertising were commonplace and you drove at moderate speed past a row of shops all using the technology to promote their store. The simple fact is, almost everybody hates intrusive advertising (who likes pop-ups, for example?), and few things could be more intrusive than unsolicited, attention-demanding ads pushed to your personal device. Fortunately for all of us, this idea died quietly.

They're Back
Now location services are back, only this time it is largely enterprises that are realizing the value of enabling employees to know where they are, and often, more important, letting the employer know where employees are. With that information, businesses can deploy resources more efficiently, reducing travel time between jobs by dispatching the closest qualified technician to a service call, for example. This not only saves the company money, it saves the customer time. With better utilization, companies can sometimes reduce the amount of capital they require for activities such as service or delivery. And the supply chain can operate more efficiently, for example, by having a warehouse standing by to receive a delivery as the truck gets close.

So why is this happening now? A number of factors have converged to make location services more accessible to enterprises. One is the low cost and widespread availability of GPS-enabled hardware, including cards or external receivers for laptops, PDAs with integrated GPS, and even phone handsets. Phone handsets in particular are proving particularly attractive for simple applications such as time and task tracking. They combine an application platform (typically J2ME), a wide-area wireless data connection, GPS, and long battery life into a small package--and as a bonus, they provide voice connections as a backup.

A second factor is the growing ease of integration. A fully-fledged location-based application often requires the integration of raw location data, mapping information from an external provider, and other sources of external data (such as driving directions) with internal systems for employee scheduling, customer information, and billing. Modern Web services-based architectures make it a simpler proposition to integrate these disparate systems.

This, in turn, leads to the third factor, the growth of hosted subscription-based offerings for common vertical applications. Established vendors such as @Road are being joined by companies such as Aligo, Gearworks, and Xora in hosting common tracking applications. These vendors enable companies to easily adopt location-based services with little or no capital outlay and relatively little expertise in the technology. For a subscription of as little as a few tens of dollars per employee per month, they can be up and running. Best of all, the business case is totally transparent: with little up-front investment to amortize, it's easy to compare the cost to benefits and see the value.

In some cases, companies report that the productivity gains in the first few days of each month pay for the cost, and the rest is pure benefit--and that's even before soft benefits such as greater customer satisfaction from a more responsive and reliable workforce are taken into account. Consequently, it's not so surprising that some of these vendors report that their subscription numbers are rising at 30% or more per month during this early growth period.

It's 2 p.m., do you know where your employees are? If you don't, it may be time to find out--before your competitor does.


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