My thoughts on Consumer LBS

The other night at Mobile Monday, I ended up in a circle conversation that included David Rolf who used to be at Gate5 (an LBS company that was sold to Nokia) and is now a VP at Vantage Point. The topic came around to Location stuff, and since I have developed some very clear and concise thoughts on Location Based Services, I proceeded to expound on them, forgetting for that moment what Gate5 did... Doh! David objected a bit, but we didn't get a chance to really get into it. It was a good reminder that I haven't posted about LBS online before, and I wanted to correct that now.

I actually refrained from getting too much into the subject for a long while as I had worked at an LBS company, and didn't want to be too negative and bash an old employer. But it's been a few years now, so now let me state my definitive opinion on location services:

Most LBS applications are a black hole of wasted time, effort, money, and opportunity.

I think that's pretty clear, no? LBS has been the next big thing for years now, but it's never, ever, ever, ever going to be big in a way the proponents of the technology think it will.

That's not to say LBS stuff is useless - far from it. Mapping services and location is an absolutely incredible technology, which - thanks to companies like Navteq, TomTom, Garmin and Google - is becoming more accessible every day. I love having Google Maps on my phones for example, and my kid loves to explore Google Earth on my PC. Mapping, satellite images, location finding, turn-by-turn directions, and even street level pictures are all super cool and super useful applications of the technology. LBS is definitely not an easy, off the shelf commodity technology either - it takes a lot of technology and manpower to translate a street address into real lat/long coordinates, and it takes even more technology to do things like routing, "geofencing", real-time updates, fleet tracking, etc.

What I'm talking about is the "magic". You know, the idea of consumer-facing LBS applications that will integrate seamlessly into our every day lives. Virtual graffiti, alerts that a friend is close by, location based coupons for Starbucks, etc. Most of the LBS proponents think that just about any social situation can be improved and made "must have" just by adding location information. If online dating is good, online dating with location added must be awesome! If shopping is good, shopping with location is even better. You get the idea. This is the stuff I'm talking about when I say that LBS is just a waste of time and effort.

Let me just go through my basic reasoning:

LBS is not magic. The technology is flaky as hell - another *several* generations of improvements and infrastructure upgrades are needed before it has the accuracy and reliability it would need to make most of the pie in the sky ideas possible. Getting a "fix" from satellites is usually a time and power consuming process that generally requires being outdoors to make it work. And the accuracy will always be sketchy - the level of detail I need when I'm going down a highway in my car is not the same level of detail that you'd want or need inside your apartment.

Location isn't really that important. First, the Internet has made location less important to daily life in general. My parents are in New Hampshire, my friends live and work in different cities or even different countries from me, but they're all in my IM list. Knowing where they are at any moment won't do much for me. Not only that, but most everyone is in one of three places: home, work/school, somewhere else. Not only do we spend the vast majority of our time in the first two places, we also have a pretty limited number of places we go in the "third place" as well. In general, location is just another data point. If you could somehow magically add location information to every one of my Facebook contacts, it would just be one more piece of information about them in the stream of status updates. Sometimes that location data is relevant, most of the time it's not.

My gadget's location isn't always relevant. Most of the location information I need on a daily basis is for places I'm going *to*, not about where I am, since I know where I am for the most part. If I do a job search or a local business search, I type in my zip code. It's not onerous, and it works, is flexible, and can be in my current city or a city somewhere else. Automation actually hinders that process. This is the same for posting photos online - if I take a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, for the most part I want the coordinates of the *bridge* to be included in the meta data, not of where I happen to be standing when I took the shot. I could be a mile away. And if I took a bunch of photos, and wanted to upload them later? Again, my location at that point isn't relevant.

We're all paranoid. The most common response I got when pitching "child tracking" to Soccer Moms years ago was the most straight-forward: "Wait a second, exactly WHO is going to know where my kid is?" Just about every Mom I talked to were psycho that even if they could somehow get their kid to lug around a tracking device everywhere they go, that some predator/uber-hacker was out there just waiting to break into the Internets and steal the information and kidnap their child. Insane but true. Beyond that, no one particularly likes the idea of having their daily movements tracked constantly by anything, even an application that they themselves have turned on.

Interesting LBS apps are niche apps. This is my final thought, based on the above example and one of the only company I've heard of that's doing something worthwhile in the consumer space. My friend Spencer Nassar and his partners at Bones in Motion have a great app - you can set your GPS-enabled phone to track you while you're out jogging, and then post the results to your weblog or online community. Great! Except that I'm not a jogger, and amusingly neither is Spencer. It's a great idea and implementation, but it's very specific as is just about every *useful* LBS app you can think of (fleet tracking, package tracking, etc.). The only *general* uses for LBS are the ones that are the most obvious, to simply help me find out how to get to a business or an address somewhere. I used to use the yellow pages and a paper map, and now I use an online search and an online map. If I have a GPS device, I can even ask it to help me drive there. It's just an improvement on the technology, not a magic service that is going to allow us to do more, just what we did before, faster and easier.

I hope that helps clarify my thoughts on the matter. If you have opinions, I'd love to hear them - email 'em over or post them to your blog.


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