About a week ago, Apple paid an estimated $20 million for a company called WiFiSLAM that develops technology to precisely locate smartphone users indoors.
People familiar with the technology consider it the next big thing. "Indoor Location and Positioning will be huge!" declared Don Dodge, developer advocate at Google, in a blog post on Tuesday. The technology matters, he argued, "[b]ecause indoors is where we spend money, meet friends and where business happens."
As it happens, Dodge has a financial interest in the technology: He's one of several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who invested in WiFiSLAM, according to AngelList. He said in an email that he's planning a follow-up post exploring some of the companies developing indoor location systems and that he plans to discuss his investment in WiFiSLAM and other companies then. He also said he plans to make further indoor location investments and he reiterated his enthusiasm for the field.
"I think indoor location will be big, with lots of winners," Dodge said. "Some of them will be acquired by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and others.
"Big retailers are interested too," Dodge added. "They are further along than most people realize. The stores have SKU maps of the location of every product for inventory stocking, shelf slotting fees and other things. Games will be a big area too. Advertising by location will be big but requires enormous scale and users to work effectively."
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Industry analysts offer a similar assessment. Forrester analyst Tony Costa calls Apple's acquisition "a game changer" because it fills a critical gap in Apple's location and mapping portfolio and because it provides the company with the means to challenge Google and Nokia, both of which have invested in indoor location tracking.
"While retail is among the first markets to embrace indoor location, its impact will be felt in every industry -- especially those with a physical presence (hospitality & travel, restaurants, entertainment & sports, etc.)," said Costa in a blog post.
And it's not just Apple, Google and Nokia. Other companies have been researching how to track people and locate them indoors, including Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola, Qualcomm, BlackBerry and Samsung, to say nothing of GPS chip makers.
Why bother? There are plenty of potential uses for indoor location tracking. As Dodge explains, the technology can be used for navigating museums, malls and other large structures; location sharing; plotting routes through store aisles; precise coupon targeting; mobile gaming; location-based advertising; business asset tracking; workforce location; and law enforcement/defense/intelligence applications.
Unfortunately, these are mostly unnecessary, at least as far as consumers are concerned.
Navigation is fundamental to existing as a functioning being in the world. For healthy, unimpaired individuals, there really should be no need to rely on a smartphone to find the most efficient route from the Jamba Juice on the north side of the mall to the Nordstroms on the south side.
As far as museums go, visitors are not perishing while trying to find a way out; they actually manage to get around just fine. Indoor location technology could probably make guided tours more precise, but it's not as if museums have no way to communicate with their visitors presently.
And airports? They're pretty well marked with signage.
In terms of location sharing, precision is generally not necessary. People have managed to meet up with friends, indoors and outdoors, since, well, pretty much all of recorded history. GPS tracking may occasionally be helpful -- shared location data could inform a party host that you're running late, for example. But a text message, email or phone call will work too, while also being more personal. And in any event, accuracy to within a meter or two is overkill for a rendezvous. Try vocal location sharing some time: "Hey, I'm over here." Or look around.
Store aisle route optimization? Once you've been to a store more than once, try remembering. Use your mind or lose it. Coupon targeting? Do you really want to be spammed by every store you walk past? Location-based advertising, meet AdBlock Plus and the power button.
About the only application I find appealing for indoor location technology is gaming. But even that shouldn't involve transmitting data to a third-party service unless absolutely necessary. Were I playing a multiplayer mobile game with someone in the vicinity, I'd want the data to travel directly between phones rather than having every player's location sent to a cloud service. Privacy matters.
But this technology isn't really for consumers. It's for businesses, so they can track you and glean more data about what you're looking at, where you're going, how long you spend in a place and so on.
I don't know about you, but this sort of thing is enough to make me enable Airplane Mode on my mobile while in the mall and pay only in cash.
In terms of asset tracking, indoor location technology seems redundant. Don't we already have RFID systems that can handle this? As for employee tracking, while I'm sure there are some reasons for doing so, I'm not sure I'd want to work for a company that did so without a really good reason.
Dodge insists the technology will be huge. But indoor spaces aren't really very big. You don't need a smartphone to find your way around in most enclosed spaces; you just need to be able-bodied and awake.