Location Locomotive
By Joachim Bamrud, Wed Jan 31 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Location-based services will not only take the mobile Internet to a new level, but also become the application that makes the wireless Net truly unique from even the best applications on today?s fixed Internet.

While the first version of the wireless Internet in Europe and the United States has received mixed reviews from consumers, content providers are eagerly awaiting the next big thing: location-based services. The technology, which should pinpoint the exact location of your wireless phone, will make many of today's services on WAP far more attractive for consumers.

Some industry experts even venture to call it the "killer application" of the mobile Internet.

I disagree. Not with the notion that it won't be important or, even vital, to the wireless Net's future. But rather than it being the killer application, we should think of it as one of several applications that combined will make the mobile Internet a killer application itself.

The others are General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and "Push" technology, which will come as part of the next standard of WAP, WAP 1.2.

WAP with location services but without GPRS is far less attractive than with GPRS. A major hurdle - calling up a WAP gateway each time you want to access a WAP site - will be gone with GPRS' "always on" technology. This capability was provided by i-mode in Japan from day one and one of the reasons behind that service's popularity.

Then there's the downloading of data, which will be at least four times faster with GPRS than today's WAP using Global System of Mobile Communications (GSM). When you use location services you want the process to be as fast as possible. Thanks to GPRS you can quickly find the relevant site you're looking for and in seconds get the relevant data you are looking for. With GSM WAP you're talking minutes.

Imagine also, that you can receive so called Push messages, combined with location-services. Let's say I'm walking down Park Avenue in New York when I get an alert on my cellular phone that that Jeffrey Archer book I've been looking for is available at a Barnes & Nobles two blocks away. This service will, of course, be based on the fact that I have granted my permission to the book retailer and filled out a personal profile.

Another potentially popular use of Push and location services would be the service developed by Swedish mobilePosition: a service that lets you know the location of your nearest buddy. (Again this is a service that depends on permission from all relevant parties, the user and his buddies).

This service - likely more appealing to teenagers than adults - can be used without Push, but would clearly be much more attractive with it.

But even without Push, there are plenty of services that should become popular with the advent of GPRS and location-services. I would venture to guess that local city guides with information on the nearest restaurants and cinemas will be the big winners here.

This is information we would like to have when and where we need it, whether we're out on the town in our home city or visiting a foreign city. In the latter case, mobile city guides with location-specific information will be a significant complement to travel guidebooks, both in terms of timeliness and practicality (it's easier to carry along a mobile phone than a guide book).

Interestingly enough, Michelin launched its famous Red Guide of restaurants and hotels on Palm and Psion handhelds last year, but said it wanted to wait with a WAP-version until location services were available. Before that it didn't make any sense to be on WAP, company executives said.

In the case of the cinema information, the service could also be tied in with the ability to actually purchase tickets through the phone, again a different application (m-commerce) that adds to the appeal of location services.

While much of this is to the great advantage of consumers, there is no doubt that these services will also have great appeal to the providers. Why? Because unlike today's typical information services, location-specific information will be something people will be willing to pay for.

First of all, location services will set apart the mobile Internet from the fixed Internet. You just cannot get location-specific restaurant information from your desktop PC when you're walking down that street. Second, consumers will already be saving money by using GPRS rather than GSM to WAP, thus making additional costs for location-specific information less of a hurdle. According to a recent survey in Sweden by Computer Sweden and Mobile Media Group, visiting WAP sites would be 30 percent cheaper with GPRS than GSM.

Then there's advertising. According to a forecast from market researcher Ovum location-based advertising will be worth $2.7 billion in five years. The ads will benefit from GPRS, location-based technology and push. Our tolerance for ads will be far greater with high-speed GPRS than low-speed GSM. Location technology can enable Burger King, for example, to place an ad at the top of the WAP site where a consumer is looking for the nearest restaurants. The ad will promote the Burger King closest to the user at that moment. And, of course, with Push, the ad can pop up automatically as a consumer happens to be near a Burger King, but using the mobile to get other information.

All in all, Ovum estimates the value of global location-based services will reach $20 billion in 2005.

Independent of the revenues coming in for content providers (and operators, of course, claiming their share), there is no doubt that location-based services will be a major breakthrough for users of the wireless Internet and the best case so far for why consumers should bother getting Net-enabled phones and devices.

Joachim Bamrud is the editor of at Wapland.com An award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI. He can be reached at jbamrud@wapland.com.