Life360 is aiming for that mainstream market and has interesting plans. The company offers a free app for family members to track each other's locations.Early adopters may love to check in at nightlife hotspots on Foursquare and Facebook Places, but what might location technology look like once it moves into the mainstream? Fast-growing startup
The in-part Google-financed startup announced a big jump in growth this Spring when a wave of media coverage lead it from 1 million users to 2 million in just 10 weeks. Now the company tells us it's hit 3 million in 9 more weeks and this week it announced a big new feature: carrier-level location tracking of any phones, including feature phones, for free. Life360's plan is to undercut the market on location data, scale up fast with a fremium model and then build its business with value-added services that incumbents in industries like home security and insurance are offering today with super-high margins.
Life360 partnered with another company called LOC-AID to negotiate with all the major US carriers in order to get access to the carrier-level location data of their users. That means they know where users are (once they've opted in) based on their phone's connection to the celular network - whether they have a smartphone running an app or not. Parents, typically, might have a smartphone running the Life360 app and tracking the location of their children's feature phones - which were opted-in by SMS. The first 3 phones tracked are free and the tracking app is free as well.
This is the kind of feature that carriers themselves and others have offered for some time, but by offering the first 3 phones for free and running a well-designed app through established and successful app stores - Life360 seems a more viable use of that location data than a family tracking app that a carrier sells to consumers themselves.
"We think within a few years, location is going to be a commodity and it will be very hard to charge consumers for location data," says Life360's CEO Chris Hulls. "And the carriers have realized that they aren't going to compete long term with the App Store, that's a channel that's going to be there forever."
By leveraging a free app in a successful App Store to scale up, Life360 believes it can position itself to offer paid services like home security.
"We believe there's going to be an antivirus for your life, making sure you're safe - we believe that's where mobile will go. We think we can get to massive scale, with regular engagement, and we don't want your money up front. We want to build the relationship and then move into home security, social networking security, identity protection. Home security systems are already being controlled by your phone but we think more interesting is the $10b spend on marketing by that industry. When you buy a house they come to your door and send out lots of direct mail, but we'll have a huge advantage - we'll algorithmically know that you've moved by the location of your family's phones. We'll be there first and with a trusted relationship. We can monitor when your teenager speeds and then we can upsell to a driver monitoring system. There are a whole lot of possibilities."
Will that kind of "apps on cheap location data platform" strategy be a realistic way to build a viable business in the future?
"I think that's the right thing for a company that's buying that data from someone else to say," says Adam Duvander, Executive Editor at leading API monitoring website Programmable Web and author of the book Map Scripting 101. ProgrammableWeb is a property of Alcatel-Lucent, a giant telephony network middleware company that itself advocates that carriers offer app-enabling APIs just like this and is also a sponsor of ReadWriteWeb.
"Free is certainly a better value proposition than what the carriers have offered customers interested in family tracking apps to date," Duvander says. "And I agree with them that free and established app stores are a better way to get market penetration for that kind of service."
Life360's Hulls believes the market is changing rapidly and that the kinds of technologies that will be built on top of location data are going to change too.
"They will target different consumers and fill different needs because smart phones aren't thought of as mysterious magic anymore by everyday consumers - and they are quickly growing more stable. There's an assumption that the 20-30 year old urban hipster base will continue to define the market - but there are far more people joining the mobile web now than that and they are going to be interested in very different new types of services."
Duvander, as steady-voiced an observer of the bleeding edge of tech as you'll find, concurs in his understated way.
"What they are saying is that it will move from early adopters to other people," he says. "Well...that's much as we've seen with other technologies."
That's one way to look at it; but the prospect of a widely-questioned mobile technology (consumer location tracking) moving into economically viable and perhaps surprising value-added services, built on location as a platform, seems to me to be an exciting tech trajectory to consider.