Location Based Services: A New Era?

Will you remember where you were when… you started using a next-generation Location Based Service (LBS) that transformed the way you conduct your life? Why haven’t we all already experienced this event?

Of Epochs:
Simultaneous to our two-phase Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 journey across the 90s to today, the bursty, iterative growth in cellular networks and devices across various generations and competing wireless technologies has been going on worldwide. This has seen an exceptionally complicated environment of carriers, network vendors, and mobile device vendors all interplaying against government telecommunications policy backdrops. Upon this landscape, mobile developers have been strewn. Each developer appears to have been struggling haltingly in the face of numerous issues and challenges centered around service control, network openness, and carrier-developer engagement, but all sharing the common objective of getting their services and applications into the hands of the end-user. In this era, the carriers have remained in control and the rules have remained the same. Signs are, however, that this era of Mobile 1.0 is about to end.

Of Industry Tectonics:
The rise and rebirth of the web and the evolution of mobility has brought us to the current peak period of innovation and disruption. This is a period in which the tectonic plates of the three formerly separate trillion dollar plus industries of IT, Telecommunications and Media grate together, subducting, melding, and lifting one another in unpredictable ways. Massive incumbents have been forced to look anew at the markets they formerly dominated and ask themselves what they can and need to do to change.

One of the better illustrations of the “Extreme Makeover: ICT & Media Company edition” changes underway is Apple. Apple has shown that it is possible to redefine a Tier-1 so as to enter into previously uncoupled adjacent markets (firstly via consumer electronics [iPod away…] and most recently with its foray into the telecommunications arena [enter the iPhone stage left…]). It is exactly this type of business model redefinition, cross-border competition, and resulting industry flux that is giving rise to profound new risks and opportunities for everyone in the space.

Web 1.0 + Web 2.0 + Mobile 1.0 = LBS X: Solve this equation.
I suspect we are at another transition point. Various tier-1 CXOs have it right: the growth of a second web, a web of geospatial content – the Geoweb – is well underway. This Geoweb will primarily be characterized by mobile Web access.

The tier-1 Web players – including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and AOL! – get it. The device venders get it. The social networks are getting it. The media conglomerates…? maybe. The carriers? “Not so much…” is the pervadingly skeptical industry response – though even this appears tantalizingly close to change. In any case, a host of innovative LBS startups are running around frantically because they, in their roles as the oft-unheeded heralds of change, definitely get it.

Somewhere across the next 1 or 2 years, people may well experience something akin to seeing their first web browser, getting their first mobile phone, or joining their first social network. Chances are, that this next revolution will be centered on Location Based Services: those services derived from knowing a users location or proximity to others users, and to vendor products and services. Such services look set to facilitate the extension of the social networks; boost the volume and value of user generated content; act as the mature realization and binding of multiple Web 2.0 threads that have been tethering out across the last few years; and form the basis of the next generation of search, advertising/marketing, and m-commerce services.

We have mature Tier-1 web datasets, new geospatial datasets primed for mushrooming expansion, and we have the swollen social graph datasets of user information in the incumbent social networks, all of which are becoming increasingly accessible via open APIs to 3rd party developers and which are crying out to be leveraged by any entrepreneur in their right mind on countless 3rd party websites and in a host mobile applications. We also have the iPhone OS, Google Android, and other mobile platforms poised to shift the telecommuncations landscape and extend the web out of the house and business and into the mobile hands of consumers and employees. Therefore, the time must be ripe for LBS – surely?


If the time is ripe, ensuring the era of LBS has truly arrived is going to involve a few more winds of change. What are they? What are the windbreaks? What will it take for this green, golden, map-pin bristling windfall of applications to be manifest in commercially hardened ubiquitous market saturation?

These are the questions The Focus on Locus: A Symposium on Location Based Services at Columbia University asks this Friday, July 11th. Against all the heat and anticipation, this is a market tempered by constraints and challenges that has seen relatively few consumers to date with access to these services in practice beyond their computer-residing browsers.

Track ahead ten years and the majority of consumers worldwide may look at their “devices formerly known as the mobile phone” as an extension of their awareness centered on location – as if they possess a 6th sense empowered by their mobile device. A device yielding an acute awareness of their spatial position in the world and in turn unlocking a vast and continually amplified treasure trove of context-relevant content and information. It is location that will faciliatate the construction, and on-demand easy delivery, of a vast aggregate multimedia and service space consisting of the accumulated experiences and opinion of every user who has ever been to a location before, ever eaten at a given restaurant and had rough service from a given waiter. As a result, and as per the era before the Internet, and before the mobile phone, many people will wonder how they ever got by beforehand.

At 8am on Friday, July 11th, the LBS conference attendees will start arriving, simultaneous to this exact moment, the iPhone 3G with built-in GPS will go on sale from Apple… How weird is that?!

– by Chris Loh


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