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Mobile LBS: The Power of Where

Mobile LBS: The Power of Where

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Published by: Prashant on Feb 14, 2009
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Mobile LBS
The Power Of ‘Where’
Prashant Singh
The author is a software professional based out of Noida. He is also the founder of Delhi chapter of / Mobile Monday/. The views presented here are his own. He can be reached at pacificleo@gmail.com


Location-based services could well emerge as the killer application that adds a new dimension to cell phones. We take a closer look at this phenomenon and its potential.
the mobile has not quite arrived as an infocom device yet. Statistics also confirm this: 80 per cent of pictures taken by mobile phone cameras never move outside the device, and a mere 5 per cent of users with Internet-capable mobile devices choose to activate Internet connectivity. Outside of voice and SMS, there is hardly

e live in the age of cell phones. Not a day goes by when we don’t read a story discussing the impact of mobile phones and associated technologies on society, business and individual behaviour. In spite of this media hype,


| OctOber 2008 | www.itmagz.com | i.t.

Mobile LBS has been more than a blip—every handset manufacturer and every telecom operator realises its potential.
any service that has captured the imagination of the masses. This can be attributed to many factors—the high prices of handsets, restrictive policies of telecom operators, poor user experience of mobile applications, a lack of awareness, etc. I seriously believe that none of these reasons play a pivotal role in determining the fate of something as powerful as mobile telephony. After all, the PC in the late 70s and the Internet in the late 90s faced similar obstacles, and overcame them. The real reason of this stagnation is something else. I think the real reason is the lack of innovative applications— applications that have ‘mobile’ in their DNA. Most of the time, we use a mobile device as a stopgap arrangement to ensure continuous connectivity on the move. Mobile Internet is still in search of its killer application—something that is not designed in the ‘PC hangover’ mode. That’s where mobile location-based (Mobile LBS) services come into the picture—these services use the mobile phone’s capacity to track your geographical location to develop applications. Veterans of the mobile industry believe that Mobile LBS is the ‘killer application’ of the mobile Internet. needed a killer application in order to get mainstream acceptance. A killer application is nothing but a term used for an application that successfully exploits the advantage offered by the new technology. For the steam engine, it was the railroad; for electricity it was the light bulb; for the PC, it was spreadsheet; and for the Internet, it was e-mail. For the first generation of mobile phones, voice connectivity (and to some extent SMS), was the killer app. All these killer apps had three features in common: 1) A more efficient mass market solution of an existing problem 2) An enthusiastic early adopter community 3) A massive strategic investment from incumbent players Let’s evaluate Mobile LBS on these three parameters to see if it qualifies as a killer app.

An efficient mass market solution to an existing problem
The problem that Mobile LBS is trying to solve is not new. Logistics and fleet management companies like DHL and Hertz have been struggling with this problem for a long time. Most of the available solutions were built around a special Global Positioning System (GPS)based device to track the location. The biggest problem with these solutions was a massive upfront

What makes a killer app
Throughout the history of technology, every new technology has

investment required to deploy them. That’s why the use of GPS-based enterprise solutions was limited to large enterprises. If cost was one prohibitive factor, the need to carry a separate specialpurpose device was another factor that prevented LBS from becoming a mainstream consumer phenomenon. In western countries, GPS navigation devices are now ubiquitous in cars, but their usage is limited to navigating through traffic. Call it a lack of vision or an inherent limitation of the technology, but these devices remain just gadgets that assist in navigation— nothing more, nothing less. With cell phones, this problem is being solved in a very innovative and cost-effective manner. There are two ways to capture location information using cell phones. The first is to use the integrated GPS capability of the device. However, a more popular approach is tower ID triangulation, in which the location of users is determined by identifying the cell tower nearest to them and mapping the user’s location to the cell tower’s location. There are three distinct advantages of using cell phones for LBS. First off, the user doesn’t need to carry a separate device. Then, a Mobile LBS can leverage the communication capability of a cell phone for a variety of interesting applications. For instance, one can have ambulance services that can determine your location the moment you call from the scene of an accident. You can add location information to pictures taken from your mobile phone camera, and you can also find out the exact location of your friends and can plan an impromptu party with those near you, etc.
i.t. | www.itmagz.com | OctOber 2008 |




A Mobile LBS can leverage the communication capability of a cell phone for a variety of interesting applications. For instance, one can have ambulance services that can determine your location the moment you call from the scene of an accident.
The third and most significant advantage of Mobile LBS is that it can utilise the billing relationship between users and the telecom operator. This is a very subtle advantage because this allows a long-term subscription service-based business model. End users are more comfortable experimenting with a subscription service because of the low upfront cost. Something similar is happening in Mobile LBS today. There are a number of companies that are approaching the market with different propositions. Loopt, a Silicon Valley based start-up, has developed a location-based social network. Loopt allows you to track your buddies, leave reviews and comments/pictures about a particular place, plan a party, etc. If Loopt is betting on location-centric social activity, then a Bangalore-based start-up named Yulop is trying to use location data to help you get a good deal by offering a location-centric yellow pages search. Delhi-based start-up, RouteGuru, is meanwhile trying to use location data for a landmark-based driving directions service. Bangalore-based start-up, Mapunity, sees mobile location data as a way to predict traffic density and help you to decide an optimal route. There are other companies who are trying to deliver highly targeted and actionable advertising and promotions in shopping malls, even as yet others view Mobile LBS as a platform to develop treasure-hunting games. This level of diversity shows the hugely untapped potential of Mobile LBS. Some of these ventures might fail, but those that survive will catch the attention of the mass market and

bring validation to Mobile LBS, which is critical for its success.

Massive strategic investments from incumbent players
The first condition for the success of any mobile technology is to cause a blip on the radar of incumbent heavyweights. Mobile LBS has been more than a blip—every handset manufacturer and every telecom operator realises its potential. They are now only looking for a right product mix, which will appeal to the highest number of users. The number of mergers and acquisitions in the Mobile LBS space are a testimony of this fact. Nokia recently bought Naveteq, a world leader in mapping solutions for a whopping $8 billion. Shortly after the Navteq deal, it acquired Plazes, a location-based social networking portal. In India, Reliance has made a big investment in Whrrl.com. This level of activity proves that incumbent players feel threatened by the potential of Mobile LBS and have no choice but to ride this wave. This is similar to what happened in the PC industry, when IBM chose to come up with a personal computer. IBM’s decision to pursue the PC business gave the PC much-needed credibility and, overnight, the computer was not a geek gadget but morphed into a serious consumer business. Mobile LBS might do something similar for the mobile industry.

An enthusiastic early adopter community
Any observer of the tech industry will tell you the importance of a passionate community of early adopters to the success of a technology. Early adopters are those who use the technology at its very early stage and iron out the wrinkles so that it can be ready for the mass market. When Altair, the first programmable computer was released, it was very geeky and complicated. But there was a BIG community of enthusiasts who were crazy about it. They formed groups like the Homebrew Computing Club and started improving these machines. These communities gave birth to companies like Apple and Microsoft, which eventually made the computer mainstream.


| OctOber 2008 | www.itmagz.com | i.t.

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