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Will WiFi JumpStart Location Based Services?

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Over past few weeks, many new location based services (LBS) that leverage the WiFi networks have come to the forefront, and many of them have exciting enough offerings to give mobile phone networks-based LBS a run for their money – not that it would take much!

With WiFi becoming common place, and the upcoming entrance of city-wide wireless, companies like (Loki from) Skyhook Wireless, Plazes, and Meetroduction and its Meetro service, are starting to make major deals and find a significant user base. Meetro, for instance is building an interesting social aspect based on its technology, and it could actually catch on, once it expands beyond the classic early adopter user base. A new function that imports Myspace info could help on that front.

Skyhook Wireless’ location technology uses a database of WiFi access points to deliver user location. The company has Loki, its browser plug-in that is starting to bring in users, but it could go farther in licensing its technology to big players. The company says its talking to IM-providers, search companies like Google, and even the video game companies Sony and Nintendo for their portable devices. Sony and Nintendo were rumored to have checked out embedding GPS for the PSP and DS, but the feature was just too darn expensive–on that end Skyhook would be much cheaper.

In comparison, the phone based LBS have been slow to get off the ground. Following moves by Sprint and Disney Mobile, Verizon’s child-tracker service launched a few weeks ago, over just one phone, accompanied by major restrictions. Talk about a disappointing debut. What is becoming obvious is that LBS is less about technology, and more about applications – interesting applications!

Take Google’s Dodgeball service. Ever since the search giant acquired the company, it hasn’t done anything with it. It is not the coolest thing on the planet, it still needs a lot of effort, but it is still popular with dodgeballers. From that stand point MVNOs like Helio could help push the cellular market for social location based services. But up until that happens, we are going to watch the location over WiFi space – it is more fun!

Also: Somebody’s Watching Me!

11 Responses to “Will WiFi JumpStart Location Based Services?”

  1. Wi-Fi location-based positioning systems like Navizon WPS or Skyhook WPS are filling the “positioning gap” where GPS fails — indoors and in cities. The Wi-Fi APs/coverage db maintained by Navizon and Skyhook are essential for wi-fi triangulation enabling 10m+ positioning accuracy is dense coverage areas…

  2. One of the reasons is that LBS in GSM and CDMA has been slow to get up and running is that the telco’s are trying hard to see how they can make their usual profit margins from it. WiFi companies are used to the fact that they are simply selling “buffet” access

    As Paul says there is a low cost approach that the Telco’s could have used but they focus on the engineering and costing rather than the function or the content. Let them stick to laying the pipe and let others decide how, when and where to fill it.

  3. Skozilla

    LB Services based on GPS receivers integrated into cell phone will definetly becoming mainstream in the next 24 month. The costs of integrating a GPS receiver to a cell phone are only a little bit higher than the costs of integrating a cmos camera.

  4. What is becoming obvious is that LBS is less about technology, and more about applications – interesting applications!

    Exactly! AJAX has provided the most interesting applications on the desktop in recent years, and I think we have the best Mobile support for AJAX on Mozilla Minimo, since it is using the exact same code base as shipping versions of Firefox. AJAX Support to be a key enabling technology. Easy access and portability of existing applications and extension might also be a key to build a good mobile app.

    Location information should be feed to the browser or application from a variety of sources (Wifi Base Stations, GPS, Cellphone towers, User Input, and other sources that might arise and be available) A helper app or plugin may need to “arbitrate” the location data, pick the best source and resolution of the data for the situation, and provide it to the application. The graph showing performance of various location technologies on the skyhook site shows some of the trade-offs. . For an instant weather forcast a zipcode or city is sufficient resolution; I really don’t need to be giving out my current street address or precise lat/long to many sites. Keeping users in control of the location information will be key to the success of the application.

    Something Web-based that ties into one or more large pools of information that already exists, something that integrates well with the desktop and can be configured and shared with your laptop or PC, something that is extremely valuable when you are on the run and only have access to a mobile device, and something that is drop dead simple to use are the key to finding or assembling this interesting application.

    All this said, you need a good and open platform for trying to build out this new killer application.

    Lots of interesting research and experimentation going on with folks using and developing Minimo these days could lead something interesting that comes together down the road.

  5. The carriers, to take up Jaspals point, tried to over-engineer it as usual (IMS anyone?). The accuracy of the location was not so much of an issue as the ability to easily publish it and use it in applications.
    They could have just taken the cell-id available on the VLR (GSM), and had a patch in the software to publish any changes. That would have allowed them to keep a reasonably accurate (within single digit kms), dynamic database of where someone is. It’s probably as much, if not more than, people would be willing to divulge to an advertiser.
    Take the dating services. Do I really want to know that the person I am contemplating having a date with is sitting 8m to my left?? Sometimes lack of accuracy is a good thing!

  6. Jesse Kopelman

    I see that Sony and Nintendo are full of the same crap as Ericsson and Nokia were about embedding GPS in cell phones. How come Qualcomm was able to do it in such a way that it translated into an added cost of $5/unit (probably even less now). Now, the bigger issue is that DS’ and PSP’s will often be used in places where GPS just won’t work (indoors and underground). Ultimately you want an A-GPS style solution — GPS when it works, something network based when it doesn’t. When it comes to LBS, the pace of adoption is super slow, so I wouldn’t expect anything useful outside of niche markets for another 10 years.

  7. Jaspal

    Grappling with the cost of the location infrastructure has been a primary issue that has encumbered the mobile carriers. Network based solutions provide good accuracy and tracking indoors but require a large capital outlay that the carrier needs to invest. The driver to move for Assisted-GPS has been to push the costs to the handset manufacturers instead. Unfortunately, there is still limitation of these to work indoors.
    WiFi based solutions certainly offer a promise in urban areas. While, these context-aware applications that you mention are indeed targeting a metrozen population, not much of the myspace generation carries mobile wifi devices. Comparing the cellular penetration with the mobile-wifi even in metro areas, will limit the full potential of these location apps.
    It has been difficult to walk the talk to make money out of LBS. Mobile carriers here in the US will get a wake-up call soon from the eastern countries as soon as the next virally-marketed LBS app comes up. Thats when things will heat up.

  8. Location or your GPS will be the new “keywords” for advertisers.

    So if Google will use a GPS coordinate for mobile search, and mobile search will be bigger than PC search, wouldn’t the technology that matches a GPS coordinate with a search query be invaluable?

    Matching a search query with a GPS coordinate is THE solution for mobile search.

    It is howGoogle Makes A GoogOL