With Latitude, Google Fires Another Shot at Mobile Operators

Earlier today, Google unveiled Latitude, a nifty little application for your smartphone (as long as it’s not an iPhone) that lets your friends locate you, and you them, on a map. It reminds me of that great Boost Mobile commercial, the one with the tagline, Where you at?! As the Google Mobile blog explains:

Latitude is a new feature of Google Maps for mobile, as well as an iGoogle gadget, that allows you to share your location with your friends and to see their approximate locations, if they choose to share them with you. You can use your Google account to sign in and easily invite friends to Latitude from your existing list of contacts or by entering their email addresses. Google Talk is integrated with Latitude, so you and your friends can update your status messages and profile photos on the go and see what everyone is up to. You can also call, SMS, IM, or email each other within the app.

Google Latitude vs Dodgeball Photo Courtesy of Flickr

In fact, Latitude is the result of a much bigger battle between Google and the mobile operators, of which location-based services are but one small part.

As I have said so many times in the past, LBS is the next big pot of gold. Just this week, I wrote: “My big belief is that as we transition to an increasingly mobile world, the location beacon takes the role of the TCP, and most mobile services (and applications) find their context from this location beacon.” Panelists at our Mobilize conference last year were of the opinion that location is about adding relevancy to applications already being used. I’d put it a bit more bluntly: In the future, mobile applications without context provided by location-based services will be like pizza without cheese.

We’ve already seen the rapid commoditization of the Global Position System (GPS) chips and hardware. Many of the GPS chipset vendors, such as Broadcom, Qualcomm, SiRF and CSR, have licensed Skyhook Wireless’ Wi-Fi positioning information, which adds depth to location-related information. In addition, there are many aggregators — Wavemarket, Loc-Aid and uLocate, for example — that sell network-centric location data as well.

And in keeping with my theme from last night, I’d like to point out that there are already products on the market that do what Latitude promises. DodgeBall, a company Google itself bought, was doing something similar a few years ago. (Thanks Matt, for that link.) Of course Latitude could prove to be bad news for location startup Loopt. As one of our readers wrote, “Loopt has not cracked the code yet in terms of getting enough customers or getting PAID for the customers they do have.”

Actually, Latitude is most similar to a friend locator offering from Useful Networks called Sniff, which is available on Sprint. In order to be effective on a larger scale, Sniff would have to do cross-carrier location information aggregation. They plan to announce more deals and trials at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona later this month.

In the meantime, with Latitude Google is moving to commoditize both the map information and the location beacon. Google is using triangulation data from cellular networks, and Wi-Fi positioning along with GPS data for its Latitude offering. It is only a matter of time before this location information is made available to other developers for free, especially Android app developers. After all, Google needs apps for its Android platform, and more importantly it needs developers to think differently. 

By doing so, it’s going after a potentially lucrative revenue stream for the carriers. As Stacey had noted, “Developers are charged each time their program asks a server for the GPS coordinates of the mobile device, making location-based services a potentially pricey feature.”

North American carriers in particular are at risk here. They need a collective LBS aggregation strategy, and fast, according to Chetan Sharma, a mobile industry expert, which is where offerings from Qualcomm can help. But will those be enough? I don’t think so.

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