Remember life before mobile phones? What a hassle! You had to alert friends and colleagues where you'd be throughout the day, or else deal with clunky pagers. And when you wanted to make a call in public, you were forced to hunt for a payphone, which was frequently out of order and nearly always filthy. Many of us couldn't bear going back out in the world without our mobile phones.
And that's how we'll feel after we start using location-sensing mobile phones. We'll look back on the days of getting lost in an unfamiliar city as a gloomy example of the dark ages that preceded a wireless renaissance. Soon, we'll no longer have to depend on memory, maps, compasses, and the kindness of well-meaning-but-completely-mistaken bystanders to guide us to our intended destinations.
Imagine never getting lost again! Better yet, imagine always knowing where you are, plus having a miniature tour guide who intimately knows your likes and dislikes, and alerts you to interesting things happening just around the corner. This is the promise of location based services, which use specially-equipped cell phones to determine exactly where you happen to be at a given moment, and combine this information with mapping software and a database of the kinds of food, music, books, entertainment, clothes, and other activities that appeal to you.
Sounds great, but in practice, how does it work?
It'll work like a Yellow Pages that knows where you are. For example: Let's say you're outside your hotel in Honolulu, and are ravenously hungry. Just pull out your mobile phone, scroll the menu to 'Restaurants' and viola! You're presented with a list of Indonesian restaurants (your favorite kind!) within walking distance. Or maybe you're out for a night on the town, and you want company. Tap a few keys on your phone, and in a couple of seconds, you'll be able to find the nearest friend on your buddy list. Businesses can use location-based services (LBSs, for short) to efficiently locate and dispatch service crews or sales reps.
According to industry statistics, only a couple of hundred thousand people will use location based services this year. But almost 125 million people will be using LBS three years from now. According to the Washington DC-based Strategis Group, revenues from location-based services are slated to balloon from $30 million in 1999 to nearly $4 billion in 2004. And by 2005, analysts at the ARC Group forecast over 785 million LBS users.
Key ingredients for growth
Of course, before any of this happens, hardware manufacturers, software developers and service providers are going to have to work together closely to build and deploy useful services.
Currently, no standard platform for LBS exists, so today, most companies who want to make location-based services must develop costly, proprietary solutions from scratch. But one firm has taken the lead in bringing the necessary ingredients together: Autodesk.
A company of the new, new economy
Best known for AutoCad, its mechanical and architectural design software, this billion-dollar-a-year company also makes digital-effects software for video games and motion pictures, as well as geographic information systems used in digital maps. In January, Autodesk formed a new division, called Autodesk Location Services, and has already started helping other companies who want to develop business and consumer LBS applications for wireless devices.
Billing itself as a "location services provider," Autodesk offers a complete web-based system for LBS development. In essence, Autodesk's system, called LocationLogic, will take the location data that a cell phone transmits and pinpoint it on a digitized map stored in its database. Then, it will match the map information with the phone user's request ("What's the best way to get to the airport from here") or personal preference file ("I like Sheraton hotels the best") and send an answer back to the user in the form of a map, directions, instructions, or a list of suggestions.
Dr. Joe Astroth, executive vice president of Autodesk GIS Solutions Division, says LocationLogic will give LBS developers the tools and the systems to "deliver location-sensitive information to the point and moment in need." He says three ingredients are needed to create useful location-based services: personalization, localization, and actionability.
Location based services must be personalized, says Astroth, because wireless services are "a very different world than the wired Web, where users are happy to go surf through a number of pages to find something interesting. That's not what you want to do if you're a consumer, business professional, or a service person in the field who needs a very specific piece of information." LBSs need to be able to access a personalized database that has a set of preferences that can quickly point users to the exact information they need.
Personalization and "actionability"
Of course, the heart of location-based services is the ability to pinpoint where the user is at a particular point in time. Location can be used to filter out all the information you aren't interested in because of where you happen to be. If you're a repairperson in the field, says Astroth, you'll want information only about the specific customer you?re helping. Or if you're in your car on a clogged freeway, you'll want information on the traffic a half-mile up the road so you can decide whether or not to take an exit and continue your drive on surface streets.
"There's been a lot of talk about personalization and location," Astroth says, "but to me, the third characteristic hasn't been talked about enough, and that's actionability. There has to be action associated with the service. If there's not an action that's immediate, the service will become a nice little widget that gets used a couple of times and then isn't accessed ever again." This means that LBSs need to give the users the ability to make an immediate decision based on the information they get, whether it's buying a book, or ordering a part, or re-routing a courier.
Autodesk hopes that by providing one-stop shopping for developers who want to build and deploy location services, LocationLogic will become the de facto development platform. The system includes software and servers that can process millions of transactions, so that LBS developers don't have to get bogged down with buying, integrating and maintaining hardware and software systems. Autodesk also can supply all the necessary location-based content such as maps, point-of-interest data, and traffic information required to run a location-based application.
Partnerships in place
Already, companies are putting Autodesk's LSP system to use. In the United States, a major Pepsi distribution plant is using technology developed by Autodesk customer @Road to track the location of its trucking fleet. This real-time information is used to schedule deliveries and make efficient routing decisions. In Italy, Fiat is using Autodesk to develop an in-car information and navigation system for the new Alfa Romeo 147 automobile. Displays in the cars will provide traffic, weather, tourist, and travel information based on the car's location and the user's request.
Autodesk has also partnered with the Netherlands-based Geodan, a pioneer in location-based services, to offer the City To Go system. Debuting this month in Amsterdam, City To Go gives WAP device users the ability to access the city's public information system on their phones.
Users can find cultural, sporting, municipal, and healthcare information and events in their area, and display locations on a navigable map. For instance, a tourist in need of adhesive bandages to treat blistered toes brought on by a sightseeing whirlwind could tap in a request to locate every drugstore within a 200-meter radius.
But privacy remains an issue
Looming behind all the wonderful things that location-based services offer their users, is the specter of a Big Brother who knows and sees everything that happens.
People don't like the idea of being tracked without their knowledge or consent. In the United States, the FCC has mandated that mobile phone systems are to be equipped with the functionality to pinpoint a user's location when emergency calls are placed. But how can customers be sure that the service providers aren't always monitoring their location, phone carriers, law enforcement agencies, or even hackers who infiltrate the carriers' networks?
Privacy advocates say that location-enabled phones should come with some kind of blocking switch that users can activate whenever they want to keep their whereabouts from being transmitted to the phone company.
The other privacy objection has to do with m-commerce: The idea that someone can keep a record of your mobile searching and shopping habits is unnerving at best.
Astroth says Autodesk will concentrate on the security and privacy aspects of LBSs, allowing users to elect not to allow the disclosure of certain information to others. He also says that it is important for customers and privacy advocacy groups to be able to see exactly what kind of user data is being collected, how it is used, and whom it is shared with.
Astroth says that while some of the concerns over privacy are overblown (the technology is simply not advanced enough to continuously monitor every LBS user at once, he explains), "customers demand privacy, and they need to have it."
Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.