Time For Businesses To Get Serious About Location Technology

The tech's still in its early days, but tracking a pizza delivery street by street shows what's possible.

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, Senior Writer, InformationWeek

February 7, 2008

4 Min Read

Companies will face obstacles in using location-aware services. The vast majority of cell phones--and even smartphones, including Apple's iPhone--still don't have GPS, though there are other ways of getting location information (see story, "GPS Isn't The Only Tool For Location"). Most business applications aren't yet written to take advantage of location data, and a lack of standards around location data can make rollouts difficult unless a company has tight control over the types of mobile devices people use. That's not always easy even with employees, and impossible if trying to reach consumers with a location-based service.

Also, don't underestimate the suspicion that employees will feel with any GPS implementation. In New York City last fall, cabbies went on strike over a requirement to have GPS systems in cars, calling it a violation of privacy despite repeated assurances they wouldn't be tracked.

Con-way worried that truckers would feel that way and oppose being tracked, though the concerns faded fast. "There are too many benefits to the system, like the driver not having to use their cell phone as much, or having to find a phone," Stockton says. It's also helped efficiency on the back end, with one fleet manager handling 80 drivers instead of 40. Con-way uses satellite-based devices. Cellular devices are probably next, says Stockton, though the company will probably still use in-dash systems, not GPS-enabled mobile phones. "We want to know where the truck and load is, not the driver," he says.

Even more difficult than employees' privacy concerns will be those of consumers, once companies start reaching people based on where they are. For years we've heard the notion of a coupon being sent to a cell phone as someone passes by a burger joint, but there's never been a mass market for that. Targeted, real-time location-based advertising risks going beyond annoying to being downright creepy. "Cell phones are a personal experience," says Joe Walsh, head of business development and operations for SquareLoop. To give it the proper respect, companies should think about people wearing their cell phones on their hips. "Touching someone's hip is a personal thing," he says. SquareLoop offers different ring tones and vibrate modes to differentiate its alerts.

Yet, what's looking likely to emerge is consumers willingly trading their feeling of location anonymity for some value, such as better search, the chance to "bump into" someone nearby--or just maybe even that coupon. "Privacy in the end won't be a roadblock," says Jaap Groot, CEO of FindWhere, a location-based services vendor that recently acquired a platform called Livecontacts to let people share their their location and media content via mobile phone with their social network.

Google and Microsoft are among those trying to figure out how to tie location and product pitches on mobile devices, since it offers the chance to provide more localized search-related advertising, a market that's largely untapped today. But no breakthrough models have emerged.

Google recently released a My Location feature for mobile Google Maps that works without GPS, an advantage since only about 15% of mobile phones sold last year had the feature. It uses data from mobile towers to help estimate where users are on a map, setting them up for potential new services, like location-based searches and social networking applications. And it's designed to work indoors, unlike GPS.

Microsoft Live Search has had a beta tool since October for use with BlackBerry devices, letting people with GPS-enabled phones use location as part of their searches. It's fairly basic functionality, allowing searches for things such as a restaurant or movie listing that consider location. None of these companies' offerings have moved into widespread consumer use yet. "The mobile experience is still in its infancy," says Ziya Genceren, Microsoft group product manager for mobile, mapping, and local. The lack of precise location information from mobile devices that don't have GPS is one inhibitor, though companies will start offering more services even with less-than-perfect location data, he says.

How soon until we have widespread GPS on mobile phones? Jerry Panagrossi, VP of U.S. operations with Symbian, a mobile device operating system vendor, says a majority of consumer phones will feature location-based services within the three to five years. "This is mass market."

Think of how little time it took the camera to go from high-end accessory to standard on even entry-level phones. And then get your company ready for its location-aware future.

Illustration by Steve Gates

Continue to the sidebars:
GPS Isn't The Only Tool For Location
Questions To Ask When Considering A Location-Based Technology

About the Author(s)

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Senior Writer, InformationWeek

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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