Are LBS Still on the Map?
By Carlo Longino, Fri Sep 24 20:45:00 GMT 2004

Location-based services: another over-hyped and under-delivering technology. Despite the potential for compelling applications, the main interest seems to be following around employees.

Location-based services were a big part of the original 3G promise, but another one that's yet to develop quite as expected. There's no doubt that being able to offer services based on a user's location offers the chance to create some very attractive applications, but it's a sad state of affairs when arguably the most popular use seems to be to eavesdrop on employees under the guise of improving productivity.

It may still be early days for LBS, with the technology not yet ubiquitous or foolproof, but the real reasons for its non-impact have to fall at the feet of carriers. US operators have had location technology foisted on them by the government's E911 regulations, which says carriers must be able to offer public-safety operators pretty accurate location data of anyone that calls them on a mobile. Predictably, the situation is a mess, both because of the government and the operators, but carriers really missed the boat here.

The smart thing would have been to embrace the mandate, build an accurate and robust system, and throw it open to developers who could create some cool services that would generate both consumer interest and data revenues. Now on most networks, what little location information is available isn't very accurate, isn't easily accessed, and the economics aren't very beneficial for third-party developers. The end result then, are a small number of consumer-focused services that aren't reported to work well, and really aren't very interesting or exciting, and the only real interest in corporate-level applications -- like employee tracking -- for which developers can jack up prices.

Like mobile multiplayer gaming, location-based services offer up a paradigm that hasn't quite been cracked yet. There's been some first steps towards it, with apps like Dodgeball (though it requires users to enter their location manually) and Socialight, but they're just that -- first steps that are still evolving. LBS have a long way to go before they hit the mainstream, and a lot still has to happen, both in terms of technology, but also in terms of business models. And it's unlikely things will move forward without something more than a concerted effort from operators.