Paris is not the easiest city to navigate. Unlike large American metropolises like Manhattan, Chicago, and L.A., streets cris-cross each other in a maze of spaghetti strands.
I thought getting from Brooklyn to Queens was hard, but that was before I went to Paris. Imagine traversing the city from Montmartre to the Rue de Chevaleret near the South Bank of the Seine during rush hour as a poor American traveler. Need help? Sure.
To the rescue comes Webraska, a privately held company with ambitions to map the world and offer it as an intelligent travel aid for mobile devices.
Although most of their mobile mapping database is kept up to date by traffic and police reports, Jamie McDonald, COO of Webraska, says, "We did have one of our young content experts going around the streets of Paris on roller blades getting a sense of the road sign systems with the aim of creating a database of points of interest. The project was successful, and our guy became very fit. But the technique was not to be repeated on a global basis..."
Mapping and navigation: Not all 'peas in a pod'
In a year when venture capital felt lightheaded and sat out a few dances, Webraska had no problem finding funding. On January 23rd, Webraska finished a round of 52 million pounds. That means that a lot of people are betting that Webraska has the technology to lead the market in location-based services, a market expected to reach $20 billion by 2005, according to industry analyst Ovum.
Ovum also predicts that 80 percent of the more than one billion users of wireless data services will be using location-based services by 2005. So, what is it about Webraska's technology that promises so much?
"The live traffic maps we offer of Paris are spectacular," says Jamie McDonald, COO of Webraska. The map even impressed industry people. "We showed them the map over a Palm at CTIA in Las Vegas and people just didnýt believe us."
Webraska brings "intelligence" to location-based services. They provide wireless navigation, spatial searching, and traffic information services in addition to maps.
"We do not do web-based mapping. Other companies can do that," says McDonald, describing the capabilities of Webraska's Internet-Based Distribution Navigation (ibDN) and their Personal Navigation Suite. "We offer a full audio-visual navigation tool. We offer turn-by-turn directions and graphics. Our offering is not straight out of a satellite image. It has multiple layers. Turn restrictions, can't turn left at certain times, one way, truck restrictions, parking, points of interest, whether the person is traveling on foot, by public transportation or by car."
Webraska's ibDN is compatible with all global community standards and can be used for m-commerce, games, city guides, and fleet management.
Creating devices that can think for themselves has always been the target of IBM's Pervasive Computing Division. "Our focus is to bring e-business applications to pervasive devices with intelligent notification," says Mike McGinnis, Director of e-Business of Pervasive Computing at IBM, explaining their partnership with Webraska.
"Imagine a doctor accessing patient records, and the enterprise solution is smart enough to know whether the device he or she is using is secure, and whether it's a ThinkPad or a WAP phone. And then imagine adding location to the offering, recognizing where the doctor is in emergencies, locating specialists, finding the pharmacies in the area."
Big Blue likes Webraska
Webraska's technology is not just a traffic gimmick, as their June 5th joint announcement with IBM, SignalSoft, and Kivera shows. The announcement adds location base services to IBM's Web Sphere Every place Server (WES), the leading end-to-end enterprise server in the wireless market.
Webraska and Kivera, providers of mapping and navigation technology, are using the WES Location Service to give location information to businesses. "IBM is ready to make the world know, by establishing its relationship with SignalSoft and Webraska, that it is serious about providing carriers and enterprises with location based services," says Brian McNiff, VP of Product Management with SignalSoft.
At a time when partnerships must be more than name only, this is as significant as the March 22nd Nokia/724 Solution deal, wherein Nokia paired up with 724 Solutions to deploy Nokia's Activ Signet Solutions over 724 Solutions' platform. To find which companies are producing premier tools for the wireless market, watch the industry giants to see whom they choose to work with.
The IBM WES deal is also interesting because it underscores the growing leverage of the young company Webraska. Webraska had the prior agreement with IBM from February 21 2001, and it was IBM who brought this deal to SignalSoft, the location based services giant which runs the 200 member Location Interoperability Forum - not the other way around.
Show me the map
The Webraska European and North American cartographic database incorporates digital mapping data supplied by other corporations, covering 13 European countries, USA and Canada. Coverage includes 18 million km of road, 350000 towns and cities and over 400,000 points of interest.
For access over a WAP phone, Webraska's navigation maps look a lot like the cartoon graphics of the Nintendo Gameboy. It gives a feeling of playing a game about traveling across Paris.
But what about the zones that sit off the map, like the "wild" areas in early civilizationýs maps? "The black holes are in Eastern Europe," McDonald says. "China has some coverage. South America and Australia have their main corridors covered. Their main cities are digitalized, but not navigable."
Webraska's other June 5th announcement, with Pacific Access of Australia, will offer mapping for Pacific Access' yellow and white pages online directories. This should allow Webraska to add another large landmass to their cartographic database.
So, how does Webraska's technology compare with that of MapQuest or GoTo, their main competitors? MapQuest only offers maps for PDAs, and GoTo offers written directions for the phone. The Webraska maps in Java are beautifully defined (available over Java phones later this year), and look like an actual road map - a clear advantage over the competition. Today, both Palm devices and the Compaq iPaq can host zoomable Webraska maps.
Keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel
Webraska is focusing on the automotive industry as the company's logical step for selling their technology. On April 19th 2001 Webraska opened their first U.S. office in Detroit, home of America's automotive industry, and they are taking part of the Eye-for-Auto conference for telematics and e-business in Geneva, June 14-15.
Look for another partnership in the near future for Webraska, one with a voice-enabling capability similar to what TellMe offers, so the driver can keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.
Across the globe, there is already a backlash against people using cell phones while driving. A 1997 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found drivers' cellular phone use contributed to 57 fatal crashes in 1997. Brooklyn Heights, Ohio, was the first municipality in the United States to make it a traffic violation to drive and talk on a cell phone in March 1999.
Other cities have followed suit. So far, Brazil, Israel, Italy and some states in Australia have laws against using cell phones while driving. The voice activation seems crucial.
As for my travels across Paris, I found it easier to park my car and stroll by the second-hand booksellers and post-card kiosks along the bank of the Seine. I was a modern day Hemingway, glancing at the directions on my cell phone until I reached Rue de Chevarelet. The wireless industry may just now be courting Webraska, but I've been waiting for them for years.
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.