The first thing we think of these days when someone mentions "location-based services", or LBS, are the mobile social platforms we've gotten used to "checking in" to wherever we go - Gowalla, Foursquare, Brightkite, MyTown and the like. But looking forward in the LBS market actually requires us to look back to feature phones and a GPS-less existence.
According to Jason Finkelstein, the director of product and marketing at LBS solution-provider WaveMarket, we are looking at a "truly horizontal market" that can be "applied to dozens of different types of businesses". But first, there are a number of hurdles to jump over.
Finkelstein spoke today at the South By South West festival in Austin, in a workshop entitled "LBS 101: Geolocation On The 'Horizon'", explaining that location started out with car-based GPS services before moving onto "personal navigation devices" and finally ending up in the smartphones that nearly 20% of the population carries around in their pockets.
LBS 101Right off the bat, Finkelstein argued one of the largest uses of text messaging is to find out friend and family location. Fifty-five percent of SMS messages, he said, ask some variation on the simple question of "Where are you?".
"The peer-to-peer privacy model is complicated", he said, explaining that the solution is not simple.
A federal mandate in 2000 made it so that any time someone dialed 911 from a cellular phone, the cell tower used would have to be reported. In 2005, the requirements were made more stringent. It's those two things that became the background of the LBS market we see today.
"The future, which is more or less here", Finkelstein explained, referring to check-ins, Facebook widgets, notifications when friends are nearby, GPS-indexed local search, location-aware advertising and marketing, crowdsourced traffic systems, location-aware messaging applications and security prevention applications.
Market Fragmentation and the Future of LBS"Location data is not just a dot on a map - there is a whole lot of more rich data," Finkelstein said. Part of what LBS app developers will have to deal with in moving into the future, he said, involved handling various networks with different kinds of location information, device fragmentation and application types, whether SMS, downloadable apps or Web-based applications.
"The downloadable app is not the entire universe," he said, explaining that SMS systems might be much more accessible to the 80% of the population that do not have GPS-enabled smartphones. "For most people, downloading something is a hurdle."
To get past some of these issues, Finkelstein said, and provide LBS to both smartphones and feature phones, developers can use "Assisted GPS", which is a "hybrid using GPS satellites and cell tower signals", triangulation and cell ID, with varying levels of accuracy and latency.
"If you want to address the mass market, you have to address all of this stuff," said Finkelstein. "You can't build a mass market service... really."
Between handset types, network and platform fragmentation and carrier coverage, the solution for developers is not clear. Location aggregators, such as Veriplace (a service provided by Finkelstein's company, which he admitted as "shameless self-promotion"), are one solution for developers looking to get beyond these complicating factors. But a constant theme throughout the panel was that with all of the hype over LBS, we are still in infancy stages in the LBS market.