By: Shalom Weberman
When location-based services were first introduced in 2001, one of the primary applications of this technology was pinpointing the locations of wireless callers when they called emergency response centers. Many other uses for this technology were envisioned at the time, all with one major caveat: user adoption. Until a significant portion of consumers had phones that contained such technology, developers could not truly capitalize on the power of location-based services. With the introduction of regulations requiring new phones to utilize this technology for emergency location services, combined with routine handset upgrades, the issue of user adoption has been eliminated. Consumers are now waiting for developers to create innovative, useful applications that capitalize on the power of location-based services. So what has come of developers’ efforts so far? A few notable applications, but no earth-shattering, game-changing offerings – yet.
MasterCard’s Priceless Picks iPhone application combines the power of location-based services and the latest mapping technology to provide users with a variety of special offers from nearby businesses – if those businesses update the offers. A recent review on CNET revealed a number of issues with the application, ranging from outdated offers, to an unexceptional user interface, to a lack of offers in certain areas. This application certainly has potential, but its current limitations may relegate it to the dusty, dark corners of Apple’s App Store.
VQ’s CarFinder application for BlackBerry attempts to solve a problem many people routinely encounter – forgetting where they’ve parked their cars. CarFinder doesn’t require any user input to mark a parking spot. Instead, the application relies on a Bluetooth connection – or rather, lack thereof- to determine when to mark a user’s parking spot. Once the Bluetooth connection is terminated by the user, either by turning off their Bluetooth-enabled car or disconnecting their Bluetooth headset, CarFinder utilizes the BlackBerry’s built-in GPS technology, automatically marking a user’s parking spot. If a user doesn’t have a vehicle with built-in Bluetooth capability or does not use a Bluetooth headset, a Bluetooth vehicle power adapter can be purchased from CarFinder. Even if a user’s vehicle’s power outlet draws power after the car is turned off, CarFinder will automatically mark the user’s parking spot once the user is out of range of the Bluetooth connection. This application would appear to be very useful – provided you don’t neglect to disconnect your Bluetooth headset or forget where you’ve parked your car in an area where GPS signals don’t penetrate, such as an underground parking garage. These limitations, combined with the application’s retail price of $24.99, and the car charger’s retail price of $39.99, may hamper the application’s success in RIM’s App World.
Some of the more promising location-based services include those more directly related to navigation. Local search applications, such as Poynt and Where, provide users with a wide range of information related to their current locations. From nearby restaurants, to gas stations and prices, movie showtimes, and traffic information, these applications can provide users with a wealth of location-based information. Poynt and Where currently rank as some of the most popular location-based applications in both RIM’s App World and Apple’s App Store – but what can they provide that one of the major search engines cannot? Have you heard or seen very much about these applications? The lack of attention and unique offerings indicate that these applications are still in the fledgling stages of development.
Apple’s App Store, with its myriad offerings, rapidly expanding user base, and global availability, is a model of success. The App Store is also a challenging proving ground for developers; release an application that is truly innovative, distinct, and useful, and watch as its popularity increases exponentially in a matter of days, skyrocketing from the depths of the App Store to the upper rankings of the “top application” lists. Conversely, release an application that lacks any apparent competitive advantage, and watch it fester, unknown, in the dark corners of the App Store. It would seem, then, that the most popular applications in the App Store’s “Navigation” category would be good indicators of current usage trends of location-based services. So, what are the most popular applications in this eminently practical category? How are iPhone users utilizing location-based services? Surprisingly, to find their way home. The most popular applications simply provide users with directions. Users do not necessarily want to be told where to go, but rather, how to get there. The fact that three out of the four national cellular carriers in the United States offer such applications even for their “dumbphones” attests to the popularity of this type of application.
Why, exactly, are these applications so popular? Convenience. Many people don’t own cars with built-in navigation systems, and those who own portable navigation systems don’t usually carry these systems at all times. Many people, however, carry their cellphones nearly all the time. The ability to easily carry a fully-functional navigation system in one’s pocket, complete with the latest features and updated maps, seems well worth a small per-use or monthly fee. These navigation applications have come to my aid on multiple occasions, proving their value time and again. From guiding me out of bad neighborhoods after missed turns or incomplete detour signage, to providing me with detailed location information for roadside assistance after a breakdown, to simply guiding me to an unfamiliar destination, my carrier’s navigation application has proven itself invaluable. The latest version of my carrier’s application allows the user to input destinations through voice commands, in addition to incorporating regularly updated traffic and weather information into route calculations. Each new version of this application has made it even more competitive with dedicated navigation systems. It would seem that it’s only a matter of time before cell phones equipped with navigation software supplant dedicated navigation systems. Exciting? Not very. Innovative? Perhaps. Useful? Absolutely! Often times, the most valuable products and services are not those that fulfill a previously unknown need, but rather those that better satisfy our current needs.
And what has come of emergency location services, the original use for location-based services? In the United States, despite the great number of handsets currently in use that support location-based services, a notable percentage of emergency call centers still lack the necessary equipment to determine callers’ locations through location-based services, according to a recently published article from MSNBC. Combined with an aging emergency call handling infrastructure and the inherent limitations of location-based services, such as the inability to locate callers within tall buildings, and it is clear that location-based services have yet to truly arrive.