by Giles Nelson

Is 2010 the year of location-based services?

Jan 11, 2010
Mobile Apps

In my opinion, one of the most interesting technology trends of 2010 promises to be location based services. These can be described as services that utilise a user or object’s physical location to deliver relevant information. One example is the tracking of trucks or ships moving freight so customers can be informed more accurately about arrival times. Another is the delivery of a discount voucher to a mobile phone user as they walk past a store which stocks a product of interest. Location based services are not a new idea. In fact, 10 years ago there was a lot of hype around them, fuelled by the froth in the mobile telco market (remember the billions that were bid for UK 3G licenses?). I have to confess a very personal interest in them too, as they featured heavily in my PhD thesis, completed in 1998. In 2010 they’re finally going to become mainstream. Why? It’s all down to the rise of the smartphone. And specifically, the fact that most smartphones now have in-built GPS. Combined with always-on wireless connectivity, it means that applications running on these phones can report a user’s current location on a regular basis. As GPS-equipped smartphone use has taken off, so the applications that use the location information have also begun to. Mapping is perhaps the most obvious – dynamically update a map, centred on the user’s current location, as the user moves around. Very useful when you’re trying to find the nearest outlet of your favourite coffee purveyor in an unfamiliar area. Photographs taken on smartphones can have latitude and longitude information encoded with them. So, photographs can be then combined with mapping information – perhaps someone has a good meal at a restaurant and wants to remember where the restaurant is. The addition of location information gives some extra context to the photograph making the event more memorable.

Social networking is also going to change. Startups Gowalla and Foursquare have both launched consumer-oriented location-based social networking applications. Rather than use conventional mapping information, they rely upon their user community to create “locations” – a bar or restaurant for example – where users can then check-in at and broadcast their location to other users. It is widely anticipated that Facebook in 2010 will start supporting location directly (Facebook’s privacy policy has been already changed to allow this). Users will then be able to browse their network by their current location, or be alerted, perhaps, when a friend is within 1km of them. Twitter, the micro-blogging service, is now beginning to support location information. Updates to Twitter are tagged with the phone’s location. Shortly, users will be able to browse tweets by location or identify when people they follow are near them. With all these examples, it’s important to recognise that the use of location is more than the simple adding of a feature. Location information will significantly change the way in which applications that support it are used. The rise of the smartphone is also enabling new business-focussed location based applications. match2blue runs interest- and location-based customer relationship management systems for its customers. match2blue recently signed a deal with Lufthansa Airlines to offer location-based community services to their loyalty programme customers. This will help Lufthansa communicate better with its customers to alert them to changes in flight plans, upgrades etc. and is also intended to provide a community environment for like minded professionals to find and meet each other. Utility companies are equipping their field forces with smartphones. Previous meter readings and bills and graphical views of underground cables and pipes can be delivered and all updated dynamically as the user moves around. It’s not just about smartphone applications though. International shipping organisations are using location information, gathered directly from ships, to optimise their operations. Dutch-based Royal Dirkzwager delivers real-time information about shipping locations to port authorities and logistics companies. Ship arrivals and departures can thus be timed more accurately leading to resources being used more efficiently and fuel to be saved. There are numerous other example applications. Location based services are at the intersection between three bigger trends, that of mobile computing, event driven architectures and real-time processing, which I predicted in my last CIO piece are going to be major technology themes for 2010. Location information is a perfect example of an event, will be usually reported over a mobile network and location-based information often delivered to a mobile device, and most location-based applications have a strong real-time element – there’s no point delivering a location-based store coupon to an end-user after he or she has walked on past the store. A key challenge for any organisation thinking about delivering a location based application or service is how to ensure it scales and allows the sophisticated types of interaction that are possible. Dealing with the quantity of location events that thousands of users may produce and responding to them in a real-time way is a major technical challenge. This is where technologies such as complex event processing (CEP) can help.

Lastly, an often cited issue for broad uptake of location based services is that of privacy. There are legitimate issues. Many people would have good reason not to publish their physical location in the public domain. However, I believe the problem of creating policies on whom and what to share location information with is solvable. Location is another piece of private information and the popularity of existing social networking applications shows that people are willing to share such information to people they trust, whether in a social or business context. Privacy policies will need to evolve and adjust to deal with location information appropriately but evolve successfully they will. So get that smartphone out, turn on GPS, download a few apps and start playing. Soon, location based apps will be commonplace and it’ll be another area of technology that we wonder how we survived without.