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The Commoditization of GPS & the Golden Age of Location-based Services

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Updated: A few months ago I speculated that location-based services and the infrastructure they require were headed for a major upswing in 2008. My optimism was based on a sharp increase in the number of mergers and acquisitions taking place in the sector. But lately I’ve been feeling like I may have been too conservative with my outlook for the location-based services revolution.

The main reason is the ubiquitousness of mobile phones; the sheer number of them that get shipped each year guarantees LBS a huge audience. Of course, in order for LBS to be on mobile phones, we need applications, which is where I believe the iPhone plays a vital role. Its large screen and built-in GPS (and now its 3G speeds) enable and encourage truly interesting LBS applications. The subsequent success of independent applications makers — Pelagao and Sense Networks, for instance — will in turn push other platform owners to find interesting LBS applications, too.

Along with the iPhone, some of the newer devices like the LG Vue, the Samsung Instinct and about half a dozen others will serve to radically increase interest in LBS services. That will force the current device makers — namely Garmin and TomTom — to consider opening up their ecosystems to applications that offer more than just maps and traffic services.

As if the rise of cell phones-as-personal navigation devices weren’t enough, Microsoft yesterday announced plans to offer an embedded operating systems for PNDs, aka Windows for GPS devices. Welcome to the first day of the rapid commoditization of the GPS device business. And while it may look like Microsoft’s just trying to get traction for its mapping service, I think this is a bit more disruptive than that. It’s the culmination of the three major technology trends of our times: cheap computing, inevitable connectivity and the easy development of software to put it all to work.

For car makers desperate to add value to their vehicles, Microsoft is providing yet another way to offer a navigation system on the cheap. Beyond the auto market, however, the new operating system is going to prompt dozens of Asian manufacturers to build cheaper PNDs, which will hurt the volumes of the market’s two biggest players quite drastically.

Indeed, Garmin and TomTom need to figure out a way to add more intelligence to their systems. Custom versions of their devices aren’t enough — they need to embrace the concept of connectedness. One way would be to buy Silicon Valley-based Dash Navigation, which has a connected device that puts Internet data to very good use. Here’s what I wrote about them back in December 2007:

The Internet is not just about the browser, but rather it is about data and how one can use it to build clever products. I think Dash, much like Amazon’s Kindle and RCA’s Small Wonder video camera, is part of a movement that is breaking Web 2.0’s browser shackles.

Yesterday, I asked the company if they were worried about Microsoft’s foray. CEO Paul Lego responded to me via email, saying:

“As you know, with the Dash Express we are already delivering all of these kinds of connected features and more in a very integrated way. In fact, with our new API, we have an open platform for the car today…We welcome innovation and look forward to seeing how these features get expressed by other PND vendors, including those that adopt this new Microsoft platform.”

Those are fighting words, but I’m sure even he knows that despite having raised $42 million from well-known VCs, his startup can’t play the hardware game and may need to partner with the bigger device makers. After all, Dash needs to worry about the cell phones-as-PND platforms, too. One way or another, this is going to be a market to watch, one that promises lots of innovation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

34 Responses to “The Commoditization of GPS & the Golden Age of Location-based Services”

  1. so no mention of RFID? no of these technologies – no matter what device are accurate enough to close an audit loop – locations want to participate in this ecosystem too you know. its just amazes me that the LBS approach has people wandering around like zombies trying to manipulate a cluggy application. RFID can deliver a level of accuracy that could create personalization on a scale (15 feet or less) that allow places like restaurants and clubs to participate directly in the understanding of their traffic (user preferenced ofcourse).

  2. GPS is the way to go, but what I wonder is how that sync’s with the operators plans regarding the access to GPS devices.

    Afterall, VzW have their mobile device GPS blocked to ‘unapproved’ applications, Apple indicates that the SDK can not be used for navigation, traffic, etc., AT&T is requesting RIM to close the access on Black Berries to the GPS device and the list goes on.

    The overall attitude and direction seems to be to tighten the ‘walled garden’ and not to open it up.

    Do you see that differently ?

  3. Om,

    Some shameless self-promotion: The San Francisco Mobile 2.0 Meetup will have LBS as the central topic for our next Meetup on July 10th in Sunnyvale (yes, one day before the new iPhone is released..).

    Doug Klein – see one of the comments in this thread – will actually be among the speakers.

    Best regards,


  4. GPS is being commoditized and will be more and more present in phones.
    However, Personal Navigation Devices (TomTom and alii) have a distinctive appeal, being bigger, brighter, and having longer battery life and a distinctive collective status enhancing the value of the car.

    Actually, the commoditization of GPS in phones could boost PNDs acceptance.
    However as Doug Klein said, PND could need some sort of connectivity

  5. MicMac

    As mobile handsets search for differentiation through large displays and greater processing power they will naturally take on mapping and other LBS functionality. Social networking is another experience that will bond well with location info and features. My question is not if the mobile phones will take over Personal Navigation Devices but rather what handset OEM and when? …who will be first to really carve out this EXPERIENCE of LBS and continue to nurse the opportunities.

    In the US handset OEMs will require Carrier backing and this is reving up quickly… now are they willing to put devices on their shelves that are more costly .. CDMA carriers are ready! (Also, look at the trend for carriers to become more like an ISP this is a dif topic regarding who will be in the value chain for navigation)

  6. [..]LBS hoopla needs only one dose of innovation to trigger consolidation just like Internet Browser did for desktop applications. Before HTTP era, every PC application used to maintain its user context for its own network, and then browser came and all the desktop applications flew to servers.
    On mobile, there is same story where every application is trying to maintain user location for server to do some mobile magic. If a browser can do this job more uniformly, all the mobile applications will again start fly back to server. Yes, it is LBB (Location Based Browser) [..]

  7. As someone in the business of providing LBS applications and services I obviously share your enthusiasm for the market opportunities and the upcoming growth. I don’t recall where I saw this anymore, but there’s an interesting statistic out there about the percentage of search that includes some sort of location specification. Location is a core element of a huge percentage of the information we care about; it’s incredibly personal and relevant. When tied to a mobile, always-present device it becomes the link between the virtual, on-line world and our physical reality. Is it any wonder folks are so excited by it :) ?

    The comment by searchgov about the cost is sadly a direct reflection of part of the historical impediments to innovation in the mobile arena. A large reason for the success of what we now call the web was the fact that there were few technical or economic barriers to innovation. When the browser hit the internet in 1989 it freed us from the old technical limitations caused by complicated programming models, finally allowing even non-technical individuals an easy way to create a presence in the overall communications and information infrastructure. (I suspect we wouldn’t be reading this blog if you actually had to write an application to deliver it :) What things like the iPhone represent is the beginning of the breakdown of technical barriers for mobile applications – we now have devices and networks capable of delivering truly compelling services. Now we need to hope that the carriers move quickly to eliminate the economic “walled garden” barriers for innovation to occur.

    (Side bar note: consider the fact that pretty much every significant internet company in the past 10 years started in a dorm room, not a corporate lab – that’s the power of removing economic and technical barriers. Nothing like that has happened in mobile yet :)

    Now, as to the point of cell phones eliminating GPS devices. That certainly could happen and traditional logic would point that way. But perhaps this is actually completely backward? Consider the iPhone for example. If 3 years ago I had said that an iPod with a cellular connection would change the mobile phone landscape the way the iPhone has, would you have believed me? Probably not. You would have used the common logic of the time – every cell phone out there would get an MP3 player and the iPod itself would be as much a footnote as the original Newton and later the Palm Pilot, interesting placeholders in technology history overcome by the never ending commoditization so typical in our industry.

    What happened? My theory; a) Steve Jobs is the ultimate consumer product guy, and the resulting device is dead on in his sweet spot of understanding, and b) they took a page from the old Microsoft playbook, “embrace and extend”, and simply made the whole much better than the sum of the parts. Rather than cell phones replacing iPods, the iPod is replacing the cell phone!

    Now think about the dedicated GPS devices again. Do you really think the cell phone will replace them? Why not the opposite – could my GPS device replace my cell phone instead? They are already sprouting network connections to support “RTTW” (real time, two way) communications. This is a requirement of their industry since the differentiation has moved out of the capabilities of the stand alone device. Simple mapping and directions is a commodity and the playing field has moved to sophisticated routing (“don’t go that way, there was just an accident on the road a few miles ahead”) that cannot be done without heavy lifting “in the cloud”. This is the original secret sauce of Dash and everyone else is racing in also. Once I have this why not let the thing dial a phone number? Take a look at the Garmin Nuvifone ( It’s probably the most viable iPhone competitor out there and it will certainly be picked up by at least one of the carriers.

    What remains to be seen is whether the mobile phone or the GPS device will be the application platform of choice. I don’t know quite how to call that bet yet since neither industry has a history of creating open platforms with great success. It certainly would seem like an obvious next step for either one, wouldn’t it?

  8. @searchgov… while that might be true, it seems like a lot more carriers are contemplating more sane strategies around 3G and LBS. Or so it seems from this side of the Atlantic. Can you expand on your previous comment so we can all understand it a little better.

  9. jamalystic

    There is so much to gain by enterprises and governement from LBS. This means we will see in the future a huge amount of devices having location base features. The cost to our privacy will be huge but with our incessant appetite for everything and everywhere digital, the trade-off will be worth it. There is so much data that will be made available from these location base devices as stated in this article: Mining the ‘Wisdom’ Of Wireless Crowds(

  10. GPS is definitely the way to go from now on. All mobile gadgets, including smartphones, laptops, cameras, game consoles, mp3 players are going to include GPS features.