In the heart of downtown Manhattan, the street outside the DigitalFocus/MobileFocus conference had been cleaned up after last weekend's Gay Pride celebration. If Gay Pride was a festival about the growing acceptance of gay culture, then where is the party to celebrate the acceptance of mobile technology by the U.S market?
An ice sculpture of the New York skyline greeted me as I entered the large conference area, and to the sculpture's left stood a table stocked with pitchers of bright blue and pink drinks. A young lady dressed as a gold statue of liberty chatted with people as they took martini glasses. The mobile positioning industry is predicted to grow into a $3.9 Billion market by 2004 by the Strategis Group, and the colorful drinks and fresh sushi were perks for those who wanted to show off their products as well as for those who were interested in adding mobile applications to their business. And for press, like me.
Aileen Heel, spokesperson for MapInfo, put her pink drink down on the table and picked up a nearby Palm Pilot III. "This has a map of Dublin downloaded on it," she said to me. "You key in your location and then enter where you are going, and you'll get directions on a map. You can ask for points of interest, like pubs." Aileen Heel had an English accent, red hair and pink cheeks. Her eyes wandered as she took another sip of her pink drink before showing me a second map. "Here's a map of New York. You can find points of interest on your route, like Starbucks Coffee."
Great, I thought, in New York you can walk forty feet in any direction and hit a Starbucks. I asked whether the system was set for GPS input, rather than typing in your location. "Not until the E911 mandate in November," she answered, putting down the glass. (The FCC in the United States has mandated that the carriers be able to locate mobile devices within 125 meters by October 1st as a safety measure.) "Then networks are supposed to locate you by a couple of meters."
New York City exaggerates the difficulties faced by any mobile positioning system. The concrete canyons created by the skyscrapers make reception difficult, and the E911 mandate of locating a device within 125 meters may be useful in the vast farmlands of Nebraska, but it can't pinpoint your exact position within four city blocks. There could be no better testing ground for MPS applications and middleware than New York. And in New York, it isn't happening.
Although Irish based MapInfo has fifteen years of experience in the electronic mapping business, a Palm III needs to be plugged into a PC to download a map, and your location and destination need to be manually entered. This was the most basic level of mobile positioning services. With the goal of finding companies that were pushing the boundaries of this market I left the conference. This was no time for a pink drink.
Spam is dead, thank heavens!
On Thursday morning I went to 245 Fifth Avenue, one of New York's new high-tech buildings, to see Sonata, a mobile marketing company. A year ago Sonata was a leading force in an area of direct marketing: calling your cell phone with a recorded message when you neared a sponsoring store.
Among the awards Sonata had accepted were Silicon Alley Reporter's Top 100 Internet Executives for the founders Owen Davis and Vid Jain in 1998, 1999, and 2000; a 1999 New Media Magazine Hyper Award, and a 1999 Alley Cat News' "Five Companies to Watch." But in 2001 the fervor for mobile marketing has cooled like a morning hangover as people realize that consumers do not want to be constantly "spammed" as they wander down the street.
After ten minutes of sitting in small waiting room staring at a miniature palm tree that had lost all its leaves apart from one small shoot, Vid Jain, CTO & Founder, and Chuck Blake, VP of Operations, invited me over to a long table which sat to the side of two thousand feet of computer programmers, who were quietly typing code.
I asked, "Am I going to have to wait for the E911 mandate before I can receive messages from Starbucks?"
"Eighteen months away," said Vid Jain. "If it ever happens. We need authentic sensing and the ability for consumers to opt into marketing. Or else customers are going to quickly get sick of spam." Vid Jain had the resigned air of someone who was making the best of the fact that Sonata's market had died before it ever began.
Sonata is now promoting two other middleware services: SendIt, a universal messaging platform, and OnTarget, voice or data content adds based on a caller's statistics like age, location, and income. "You could send a message and part of a new Britney Spears' song when a new album comes out," said Vid. "Or you could reach energy managers in Brooklyn if there is going to be a brown-out."
Vid absently tapped at a large button calculator as if he was figuring out how many brownouts in Brooklyn and how many Britney Spears' albums a year it would take to run at a profit. Vid Jain said, "We'll make two million this year, and next year we hope to make eight million."
Sonata is currently closing deals with a pharmaceutical company interested in direct marketing to doctors and a record company for promoting albums through "viral marketing," the ability for the user to send on the song clip and advertisement to friends. Sonata has also announced a partnership with Webraska to add maps to their marketing, offering directions to the nearest store selling Britney Spears' new album.
Before we left, Chuck Blake let me send a Britney Spears "viral" message to my answering machine, but I never sent it on to anyone else because Britney Spears sounded like an elementary school girl choir with a drum machine. The virus started and ended with me.
Nice bells and whistles
Ken Madigan, Marketing and Media Relations at LocatioNet, is part of a three-person team that's spearheading a mapping middleware offering to carriers in North and South America. LocationNet's mapping technology was spun off from that of the Israeli military, where it received Israel's most prestigious award for military system implementation. Mobilia and Telecom Italia use LocatioNet over in Europe today, and by 350,000 mobile units worldwide.
"Cars in Israel are being built with a screen like this," said Ken Madigan, showing me a PC mock-up of their technology. A rectangular screen the size of an average envelope was split in two. On one side sat a map of a coastal town and on the other were four changing strips of advertising. "In Israel this would be a touch screen with a real time map of where your car is. You could view it on a city map, a vector map, or from an aerial photograph." We watched as our mock automobile trundled along the streets of the aerial photograph.
Ken and I chatted about the mobile positioning industry as he showed me how their advertising could be defined by a driver's choices, like sandwich shops at lunch time or gas stations when you needed a fill-up. On the larger screen the advertising strips didn't bother me. "I went to a mobile positing conference earlier this year," Ken told me. "The CEO of Sprint PCS stood up in front of a room of people marketing their mobile middleware or applications. He said, 'if any of you come up to me with a system to call up a consumer every time they pass a Starbucks, don't bother. We are never going to use that over our network.'"
We laughed. Then he showed me LocatioNet's fleet management system that does real-time tracking and gives an itinerary of where the trucks have been. I started to feel more hopeful about the future. Ken showed me LocationNet's technology over a WAP phone and over Compaq's iPaq. The iPaq split the screen to view a city map on the lower half and a live camera shot of that area above.
I was not sure what the live camera added, but it was visually interesting. Ken finished his presentation with a mock version of "Bot Fighters" that had been built with their partnership with It'sAlive, a location based game company. "Bot Fighters" allowed you to track and "shoot" other players of the game.
LocatioNet certainly felt more like the future of the location services market. "We're finalists with a number of U.S. carriers as they chose their location systems," said Ken as he walked me out. "Gadi BenMark, our CEO, is down in South America, where he is presenting our technology to seven carriers in nine days."
Simple ideas at Starbucks
My last meeting was held at a Starbucks, on 30th Street and Seventh Avenue, next to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. If LocatioNet is the future of the location services market then Vindigo is the present. Based on the simple concept of offering a guide to restaurant, shops, or nightlife over a Palm, Vindigo initiated their first services in March of 2000. To this date they have half a million users and are gaining between 20,000 and 30,000 a month. This summer the new line of M100 and M500 Palm Pilots will come with Vindigo services bundled with the system.
There are 19 cities in the U.S. where you can use the service, from San Francisco to Austin Texas, and one international city, London. Jason Devitt, CEO of Vindigo, was pretty candid about plans for world domination. "We are looking to consolidate our lead here in the U.S. this year. But we have our infrastructure in order, and if there are any content providers that are interested in our services we can roll it out pretty quick.
As we sat in the Starbucks, Harley Unger set a location down in the East Village on her Palm V and used the device to steer around a map in search of a restaurant with a Zagats' rating of 25 or higher. Vindigo may not be used by punk rockers that live in the neighborhood, but it is perfect for tourists or people uptown who want to slum it with style. With the help of the larger PDA screen Vindigo was also able to add unobtrusive adds for Sprint PCS or Mercedes below the map.
I finished my interview by asking: "How mobile are these location based services?"
The answer is still fuzzy, even for Vindigo. The Palm V and Palm VII allow wireless modem attachments and Vindigo is beta testing a system to change the location or to change from Zagats to another form of content on the fly. As for GPS attachment, which can also be added to some Palm devices, Jason Devitt said, "They just don't work in a city like this. There is no way you are going to have all four satellites in the line of sight with these buildings. You'll need some other combination of GPS and location sensors in the future. I understand that Ericsson is offering a MPS service in some European cities, but it isn't happening here."
New York is a mobile backwater
The U.S. remains a backwater in the mobile market. In the subset of the positioning market, the U.S. is not in better shape. Vindigo will work if you key in your present location. LocatioNet hopefully will push the market forward, but again it can only push as far as technology allows.
For a quiet backwater like New York, that is the hand we have been dealt - it will be past the E911 compliance, probably a full eighteen months past it, like Vid Jain predicted, until we see location based services that can pinpoint your exact location.
Until then it is compelling content, through the offerings of Vindigo and LocatioNet that will drive the market.
C.J. Kennedy is currently the senior staff writer for Unstrung.com, and has covered the mobile industry for M-Business Magazine, The Wireless Developer Network, Wireless Business & Technology, Wireless Related, and The Industry Standard.