Mobile App Developers, We Have a Problem

iappsMobile apps are hot. Apple users have downloaded 2 billion of them, Microsoft just launched its Windows Marketplace for Mobile and Verizon, which is trying to lure developers to its own app store due to open later this year, in the meantime has announced it will launch Android-based devices preloaded with apps, and access to the Android Market. But amid all the excitement some painful realities are starting to emerge, such as the role that smartphones play in distracted driving, or the effect some apps can have on battery life or the cellular network. A recently launched startup — Waze — exemplifies some of those issues, while also showing off the great promise of mobile apps when ubiquitous wireless enables access to data.

Israeli company Waze has developed a crowdsourced mapping product that could loosen the hold that proprietary mapping firms like Teleatlas (now owned by TomTom) and Navteq (purchased by Nokia) have on the location-based services (LBS) industry. Waze uses real-time GPS data from participating drivers to assemble base maps for a given geography. Base maps are the core building block of any location-based service, and are usually assembled through costly, complicated and time-consuming van drives through towns, cities and regions.

The base maps for current GPS services are largely developed and monetized by Navteq and TeleAtlas, which Waze believes are pushing up costs and slowing innovation in the LBS arena. According to Waze, the creation of a new base map assembled cheaply using user-provided data could reduce expenses — and increase competition in LBS.

That’s the promise, but there are some realities that Waze must face. In a recent demo, a Waze exec described drivers manually updating information on slow traffic, accidents, etc., from their iPhone in real time. Even if this only involves one or two taps on the screens as opposed to extensive typing on a keyboard, asking drivers to manually update anything while on the move flies in the face of very current and well-founded regulatory efforts to minimize driver distraction.

Second, like many small companies, some of Waze’s development choices seem to disregard the realities of the mobile environment. Its near-real-time updating of position information and delivering of constant map revisions to the handset eats bandwidth, whether free or not. This will impact the performance of both the device and the network.

If a device is continually polling and sending/receiving information from the network, as well as always keeping the GPS receiver on, it will have an impact on device battery life, as described by users of Waze on the support section of its web site. Additionally, if a bunch of devices in the same area (i.e. cars in a rush-hour traffic jam) are using a popular application that’s bandwidth-intensive, the additional data volume will literally cause the cell coverage for a EVDO or HSPA cell site to shrink, meaning the device will have to “yell louder” and work harder to get throughput, resulting in an additional battery life hit, as well as suck up limited cell site capacity.

So while we’re excited that Waze is taking on the base map duopoly, thinking through mobile application behavior in terms of safety, device functionality and network impact is important as well — issues all mobile application developers need to keep top of mind. For as the mobile apps space continues to heat up, it’s important we don’t let them burn out the infrastructure or society’s good will.

Jeffrey Belk is Managing Director of ICT168 Capital, which advises and invests in emerging and growing companies in the information, communications and technology space.