Move Over Hyper Local, Micro Local Has Arrived

2010 will be the year that hyper local was joined by “micro local” becoming mainstream (here’s a blog from the always good Read Write blog about recent app launches to find Supermarket products http://bit.ly/c8L37Y #lbs)

There are a whole bunch of these sorts of apps either already launched or in the works.

The life-changing impact of mobile I’ve been excited about for as long as I can remember; but the truly behaviour changing use cases have taken MUCH longer to come to fruitition than anyone with as long a tenure in the mobile industry as me can also confirm.

Things began early on though with SMS changing the way farmers in developing countries can check grain prices in nearby markets before deciding which location to sell their produce. The “cool” stuff – everything from augmented reality benefiting health care and medical practise to child security apps and context related location services (a topic close to my heart with Rummble) have taken much longer to arrive.

A combination of industry strangulation of innovation thanks to mobile operators, combined with under performing hardware and badly designed software (all three actually still featuring as a degrading force in the sector) has meant I’ve started atleast 3 companies which I misjudged and were too early to market and that meanwhile people have grown weary of being told “mobile is the next big thing” ..even investors.

Finally though, ubiquitous location technology, truly ‘smart’ phones (or Apps phones as I think they should be called) are being sucked up in growing numbers by a general public ready for the next big thing.

Take up of software or services with consumers owes as much to whether the market is ready to get their heads around a technology or not as it does to the actually technology itself. I spent over a year trying to explain what a “social network” was to everyone (let along a location based socnet on mobiles) before MySpace and Facebook came along and educated the world (I’d argue that Friendfinder educated the early adopters and the west coast, but not the world!).

So, people have used GPS for years; they’re comfortable with the idea of their device knowing their location, and “check-in” services have been a great stepping stone to allow users to feel they have complete control (although IMHO it is the more automated services like Google lattitude which represent the model of the future for location, with out interaction required by the user).

With that back drop, Micro Local services are set to eventually boom. This year sees practical early users for those for whom “mobile” is already a way of life – a fake prothetic limb to their body (I guess my friends would include me in that category).

Why search the isles in a supermarket when you can be pointed to the right place?

Let your imagination wander a little. Everything from you DHL delivery, to your pizza delivery thru girlfriend, wife, kids … a build in guide of an art gallery with a search pointing you to the exact painting you wanted to see. Trying to rearrange your stock room and wandering what happened to those widgets from warehouse C? unloading 150 shipping containers and looking for one particular item of cargo? New on an aircraft carrier with 4000 people and still getting lost? Structural engineer analysing the design for a building extension on side and wanting a representation of the entire underlying building structure in realtime? What about Google Building view, with views of the insides of buildings not just the streets?..oh hang on, Microsoft is already doing that!

Thanks to the digital equivalent of gyroscopes and clever software, these things are all possible.

What about arriving in a skyscraper to have blips on your screen of which floor and room your colleagues are in, or in a crowded club. Very Jack Bauer huh? ..micro local, it’s coming soon to a mobile screen near you.

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Latitude: Googles Trojan Horse (or Why “Who’s Nearby?” Is Not A Business)

This post was published on Friday 6th February 2009 as a guest post on Mobile Industry Review

For the last 3 years now I’ve been crowing at conferences that “Who’s nearby” is not a business. I drew this conclusion from running playtxt, Europes first location-based mobile social network.

It started in 2002 and we had an Alpha launch in 2003. It was ridiculously early to market. Back in 2002 most normal people (i.e. those for whom a “tweet” today is still something only birds do) did not know what a social network was, let alone a mobile location-based social network. Thanks to MySpace, Facebook and the inevitable march of technology, even my own mother is now aware of social networking, SMS and GPS.

By 2005 Google had bought our main competitor Dodgeball and although the mobile operators were still charging for Cell ID lookups (ludicrously, they are STILL trying to!) I already believed it was only a matter of time before location became a commodity. It would too easy to do for start-ups to do and even easier for others such as Facebook, which was on its ascent.

I decided that “who’s nearby?” was never going to create a multi-million pound business and I made three predictions, some which are still relevant today:

  • GPS will be in every phone as cameras were then becoming. (GPS chipsets are extremely cheap, power consumption is becoming lower, processing power higher and Galileo is on the horizon -literally, haha).
  • One of the gorillas (Google, Yahoo et al) will release a free Cell ID/Location API. (Google have and its excellent).
  • “Who’s nearby” will also become a commodity

For the last 2 years I’ve been telling any start-up which is building its own Cell ID database, that it must be mad. I see no business model. Google about as likely to charge for Cell ID lookup as it is for its maps API; and that likelihood is slim.

There was (and is) money to be made with tracking and Cell ID technology, but both industries begin with “S” and neither spell the world “Social”. Instead, it is Security (child tracking, staff tracking) and of course Sex (proximity dating, adult services); infact any vertical where a premium can be demanded – we know that fear and shagging both command strong emotions which can result in a buying decision. Wondering “Where are my friends?” does not; unless of course you’re intensely paranoid or have VERY accommodating friends.

There is no mobile internet: there is only the internet.

This has been my other crusade for the last 2 years; and this is probably what Google believes too. What I mean is, that fix-line world-wide-web access is the black & white TV of the internet. Amazing in itself, but without the full functionality of what we recognise as “television” today.

Location, portability and the need for personalisation (a mobile being such a small, personal device) are the three missing dwarfs which give us our Seven Dwarfs of the modern internet. (The first four were IMHO: the web browser as user interface, freedom to publish without government or minority corporate control, always-on fixed cost access, and broadband bandwidth; Snow White being the internet itself).

So in the near future (3-5years?) no one will talk of the “mobile” internet but simply, the internet. You will have an iphonesque device (in size & looks if not in O/S 😉 which you take home and plug into your 24 inch screen and keyboard …we’ve still a decade to go before we type goodbye to Mr Qwerty and say hello to HAL.

Be under no delusion, Latitude is Googles Trojan horse into the social networking space.

After Googles purchase of Dodgeball it was clear they had every intention to roll out a service such as Latitude and they are perfectly positioned to do so.

Almost by-passing online social networking entirely (aside from Orkut which only took hold in Brazil) I believe Google will pursue a wide-reaching mobile social play. Google will build up a critical mass of users on Latitude; and they will join because:

  • It is Google (so its trustworthy; yes still)
  • Its easy to use – simple UI and simple privacy model: Automatic, Manual or Hide your location (or as I prefer: Honest, Lie or Paranoia)
  • It has reach (27 countries at launch, lots of handsets, no GPS required)
  • Its free

They will then likely launch an API (in the process solving some of the standardisation and interconnectivity problems – possibly using the new OAuth hybrid or equivalent) but also roll out other functionality enhancements. Although the latter may take longer than you think.

Latitude has lots wrong with it too e.g. Gmail import only (where is XFN Social Graph import or device address book comparison?) status update is crying out for Twitter integration and a hook into FireEagle (with which Latitude does not compete, yet) would all be very welcome (the last two are unlikely for political reasons but would be a fantastic nod to the open ecosystem) and dont forget part of Latitudes beauty is its simplicity; and Google have time on their side.

Many of us have been waiting for location-based services to come of age for YEARS! but in reality we’re still in the early adopter curve. Infact, I’d go even further than that. At BeingDigital in 2008 I stated on stage to a deluge of ridicule, that Social Networking wasn’t yet main stream. The laughing continued until I asked how many parents AND siblings of delegates had email? The answer was predictable: virtually everyone. Then I asked how many parents and siblings were also on a social network; over 75% of the hands dropped.

150 million people on Facebook is a lot, but 3.2 billion people have mobile phones: that’s a lot more. Email is mainstream, social networking is still maturing. Eventually it will of course become part of everything we do “online” rather than be a destination, with your social graph becoming portable and also actually owned by you, not FaceSpace.

So what does this all mean?

1) Location is already commodity AND your friends location will become a commodity.

Any service will be able to plug in and use this data (with the right permissions). Its already happening – checkout Yahoo’s FireEagle which is an aggregator of location between services.

2) If you’re a start-up building LBS, Cell ID, friends nearby services, or anything else which is being commoditised as we speak, see above.

Loopt; west coast startup run by a bright 24 year old entrepreneur – nice guy, flawed business plan. $13million+ in funding, nudging just 1 million users after 3 years with low engagement metrics. Differentiator? There isn’t one. Case closed, game over.

3) If you’re running anything with the words “mobile social network” in the title, lock yourself in a room with your team and work out how you’re going to save your business.

That means innovate. Mobile is not a differentiator, its an inevitability.

At Le Web 07 I met with Christian Wiklund, Founder of Skout. He had built a cool location based mobile social network (LoMoSoSo anyone?). By Q1 2008 when I met him in San Francisco, he’d already realised that competition was fierce and the concept was flawed — and that was before the gorillas had waded in. I implored him to change strategy (something which infact he’d already started doing). He chose dating. It’s a smart move. Dating generates money—and lots of it. Proximity dating, or infact “mobile dating” in general has never been done really well (even Mr Arrington agrees).

As a LBS start-up, you need to think about adding distinctive value for users; differentiating on location is an oxymoron. I know some of you are making money, some of the pure play mobile social networks are even profitable – great. But there’s an iceberg ahead and it may be bigger than it looks: just ask Captain Edward John Smith.

The future is relevance; the context of not only where I am but what I’m doing, who I am, where I will be. In summary: It’s about the data, stupid.

..and that will be what I write about in my next post; if they’ll have me back!

Chinwag Podcast on Search & Location, now available

For those that missed the Chinwag Live: Search & Location Based Services on 7th Oct 2008, the PODCAST is now online, so if you missed it you can listen to myself and these other purveyors of all this locational, at via Feedburner, and also on iTunes. (in 3 parts) RSS & iTunes: http://tinyurl.com/57wuqh

In order, left to right:

Felix Petersen – Co-founder, Plazes / Head of Product Management, Social Activities, Nokia
Adrian Drury – Head of Commercial Strategy & Business Development, The Cloud
Chris Moisan – Product & Market Development Manager, Taptu / blog
Andrew Scott – Co-founder, Rummble
Peggy-Anne Salz – Chief Analyst & Producer, MSearchGroove
CHAIR: Jo Rabin – Consultant & Co-Founder of MoMo London

GeoLocation finds its place in the ecosystem

This is an expanded comment which I posted at here originally, but disappeared.

So, for the uninitiated the location based services field – and specifically the technologies surrounding the ability to find yours, or anothers, location – is a convoluted one.

I often find it both incredible and ridiculous that so much energy and time is expended trying to solve a problem, often for good reasons, which is clearly going be solved later on when the market, technology, or both, are ready.

Finding ones location (and all the functionality surrounding that) is a very good example. At Rummble, we “wasted” some considerable time early on, either looking at location or researching ways to solve it – including building our own DB of cellIDs etc. Thankfully, we didnt waste as much time as we could, and eventually excepted that we should stay focused on our core efforts in the knowledge (well, our own belief) that this would be solved well (and probably with access for free) by someone else.

Confirmation of this came in late 2007 when Google released its “My Location” function for mobile phones; a fantastically simple (atleast to the user, but not most likely technically) piece of software that shows on Google maps, on your phone, where you are.

Over the coming weeks I used in on my Blackberry 8800 (with GPS turned OFF) as it was often accurate enough, and quicker, than using the built in GPS. The GPS on the 8800 is great btw, it often locates in as little as 10 or 15 seconds – compare this to the N95 which at best takes 30 seconds but more often takes up to 2 minutes.

I’m told with the latest firmware the N95 has improved alot; but not enough. I gave up after the first two months – GPS was unseable slow and the overall battery life appalling. The N95 was the location-based services King-of-phones which never was. Its combination of functionality, size and specification (on paper atleast) should have made it a king to be admired in the anals of mobile phones for years to come – much like some of its predecessors, the Nokia 8310 or 6210; but it was not to be. Anyway, I digress, thats another post…

So, I’ve found myself 8/10 times using Googles MyLocation maps; its instant and has improved over time (as their database of cell towers improves and usage by hundreds of thousands of users enables the service to become more accurate). I was recently told by a Googler at a recent conference which is improving by 4% a week – that may have simply been an illustrative figure, but certainly using it I noticed this.

Last week I was walking down a main thoroughfair in London and could watch myself moving on the map as I walked – even HE was suprised to hear that. It was truly impressive – and again, that was without GPS turned on.

So LBS on phones are fast becoming a reality – it is the last peice of the jigsaw in my mind, to enable the mobile internet to take off in a proper mass market way. That still wont be until Q4 2009, but the table is laid and now we await the food!

There have been rummblings recently of Google releasing a MyLocation API. My personal opinion is that this is a very obvious one for Google to leverage their infrastructure to get a buy-in from the developer community.

Releasing this API but providing people/developers use GoogleGears – or more likely, Android (their mobile operating system) would add to the momentum of Android and getting developers aboard.

There are a handful of startup open projects trying to pull together Cell ID information, these include http://celldb.org/ and http://www.opencellid.org/ but with atleast 3 other location based startups I know trying to do this, I think the openDBs and the startups may be late to the party. I actually emailed both to suggest they work together and that I would help, but got no reply from either.

With Google (and others – Yahoo has a vast DB it could give access to in conjunction with Fireeagle, and the resources and reach to instigate a CellID effort) location, by GPS built into phones (I believe GPS will be the next “camera” in phones, i.e. the next ubiquitous standard piece of functionality) location is something that is both important but also fast being solved. Startups putting significant effort into solving this problem, are making a mistake in my view, as thankfully, its being solved by the big boys.

This time next year, if not before, there will be a geolocation service SDK/API available to all; and most likely, free.

The iphone has location built in, using Skyhooks in licensed form as I understand it, and a combination of cellid and wifi hotspots is used by their service to provide location.

Mobile IS the future of advertising – as Eric Schmidt was recently recording as stating, as if it wasnt obvious already; and for Google, with much riding on Android as its way to grasp an influencial foothold in the mobile landscape, they need to do everything they can to ensure its success. Making LBS easy (as it is on the iphone) is one obvious way to accelerate interest and takeup.

As an entrepreneur who has pitched more than one company to VCs, one is often faced with the inevitable question “And what if Google* decides to do this” (* replace Google with any analogous large blue chip organisation with much resource).

It is a fair question, but sometimes we do tend to over estimate the ability of large incumbants to react and innovate, or enter and then dominate new markets or sectors. Despite its prescence on mobile, I’d argue that thus far Google has not impressed on Mobile. It’s not as bad as Microsofts failure to embrace the internet early on; but I feel there is a “could do better” report card due.

This opinion is of course voiced without the insider knowledge of the Googleplex in Mountain View, or Googles London centre of mobile development. I am sure they have plenty more up their sleave than MyLocation. It is also fair to say, that Android could yet have huge impact. I have high hopes for Android, which is headed up by Google and a selection of other mobile industry stake holders. All I am saying is, that its going to be a much tougher fight for Android than people realise.

The mobile industry – or atleast, its traditional “owners”, are responsible for the delayed and continued painful transition from traditional mobile voice and text, to “the mobile internet”. The MNOs are directly responsible both for the more recent acceleration towards mobile internet adoption (e.g. Vodafone UK’s recent bundling of data on all its tarifs) and the false start WAP debacle in 5 years ago and the wall garden, niave “we want to be content providers” falacy, ever since.

One should not underestimate the MNO’s continued determination not to see their grip on cell phone users slip into the hands of others – including Google – and its this reason which has strangled location based services until now. Expensive, un-unified access to Cell tower information (MNOs still charge for lookups – 12 pence each on last time I had the conversation) and the handset manufacturers have failed (as usual) to provide a sensible reliable way to retrieve GPS information from the handsets (the J2ME GPS implimentation works but is buggy across handsets and I wasnt aware that it was possible via a mobile browser – although in Mike Butchers recent post these guys claim to do it).

So, in summary, obtaining a location on mobile if you want to automate it into a cross-handset application, is still rather convoluted, but its about to get much much easier. The biggest Google can do to the mobile internet industry is provide a comprehensive -and free- API for developers to leverage their MyLocation platform.

Whats important though, is that this is made available for all mainstream platforms, not simply GoogleGears on Windows Mobile, or only Android; given the advantages to Google of using the LBS as a hook to pull users in to using exclusively Google technologies, I suspect releasing it to work on non-related Google platforms, will not be a priority.

The other problem is one of maps. Many location based services want to use maps; currently Google maps Microsoft maps can be used on mobile – and this isnt their decision. Its dictated by the license agreements from the map providers. Currently the only solutions are paid for maps, from companies such as Navteq, now part of Nokia.

I’d argue that it will be one of the single most important contributions to the success of mobile applications, in the last 3 years.

Off the record recently*, I spoke with a Google employee who confirmed that an SDK/API will become available – but gave no time frame. It wasnt a suprise to hear this – its an obvious decision; but it was good to get confirmation; and certainly dilute any negativity I’ve recently had towards Google for other decisions, which perhaps were not as helpful as this one will be.

As soon as its available, Rummble will certainly be taking advantage of it.

* and I only mention this now having read posts in Techcrunch UK and Techcrunch.com – for which I was not the source!

Thoughts on Fire Eagle from Yahoo

In Fire Eagles inaugural TechCrunch review, the line that jumped out was the terribly misguided leader “Fire Eagle launches with near zero functionality”. Were Fire Eagle a traditional location based service, this would likely be fair; but surely TC is missing the point. FE sits at the apex of services, providing a consistent route and API so that whichever consumer service a users uses, they can consequently propagate that update (at their discretion and convenience) to all the other services. In a nutshell this can be done:

pp_login_head_v3.png* Directly at the FE website / direct via SMS etc
* via an FE compatible app
* or via a future FE social app

The 3rd option is my concern; if only because users need to be very clear where FE primarily sits as a service. I’d even say there was a potential argument against FE producing a (e.g.Facebook) app because it should be the FE application developers who develop the apps and services which then utilise FE as the location propagator between them. This then retains value for the app developers in having their users interface directly with them. In this respect TC seemed to miss the point and failed to focus heavily enough on why IMHO FE is an important catalyst for all of us working in LBS.

This leads me to a final point, which is are there any plans to support signup of users to FE via the API (I haven’t checked so if it does apologies) in parallel and at the time of signup, e.g. when they signup to Rummble they become a member of FE by default? Likewise combining this with FE Support for OpenID would further accelerate FE’s chance of survival and acceptance as a defacto location propagation tool, and hopefully ensure users understand FE’s remit as primarily being the glue between services not a service itself (assuming of course that last point is true! 🙂

Oh, and whoever said to TC that Fire Eagle is like “Twitter with location” should be shot — its a bad comparison for all sorts of reasons, not least because Blaine & co are still struggling to keep their services reliable, but mostly because it completely undersells the effect that an industry wide propagation service for LBS may have.

If the woman sitting next to me on this flight to SXSW doesn’t stop making deafening suction sounds chewing her boiled sweet … there will be blood.

Andrew.