You Can't Hide From Location-Based Apps

Where the heck am I?" I've asked that question many times as I've gotten lost on America's interstates. It's not as common a question now as it used to be, thanks to GPS devices such as Garmin's NĂ¼vi 200W, Magellan's Maestro 4350 and TomTom's GO 930. Such dedicated GPS devices will probably go extinct before too long, but even after they're gone, you're unlikely to hear anyone ask "Where the heck am I?" again. That's because everything from your mobile phone to your laptop will incorporate GPS technology or tools that duplicate GPS functionality.

Meanwhile, we're going to see a new breed of applications that incorporate GPS data: location-based software, or LBS.

What will these applications do? One example is Xora's GPS TimeTrack, offered by AT&T as software as a service. Igor Glubochansky, director of industry solutions at AT&T, explains that users of these vehicle-installed devices can track field personnel and their activities from a password-protected Web site that provides up-to-the-minute information on location, speed and stop times.

On the consumer side, there are offerings like Loopt's "buddy finder" application, which allows friends to see one another's locations on an online map, thanks to an LBS infrastructure that works with Qualcomm's QPoint location-based server software. I can already foresee games of Twitter tag and Twitter hide-and-seek.

LBS is also being incorporated into Web browsers. Mozilla will be integrating Skyhook's Loki location-based services into its Firefox browser. With an LBS-enabled browser, when you do a search for, say, restaurants -- bam! -- you'll see a map of all the nearby places to eat.

This works even if the phone or PC you're using doesn't have a GPS chip. The trick, explains Nick Brachet, Skyhook's CTO, is the company's XPS (hybrid positioning system), which uses Wi-Fi access points, GPS satellites and cellular towers to determine location.

Skyhook, whose technology gives Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch their sense of location, is far from the only company getting into LBS. Google, for example, has been getting into the act as well.

Mike Chu, a software engineer on the Google Mobile team, says Google is taking a similar approach to Skyhook's for its Google Mobile applications, relying on a database of cell tower locations and Wi-Fi access points.

But if this technology is so advanced and its applications are so cool, why haven't you heard more about it? There are a couple of reasons for that.

First, there's the question of how to make money from it. Charge for the application? Charge for each time the service is used? Slap a service charge onto phone bills? Sell localized ads that appear when a service is used? No one's quite sure how to turn this neat technology into a viable business plan.

The other, more important problem is privacy. You see, the location services work both ways. If you can find out where the nearest bar is by typing "local bar" into your search engine, the technology can also be used to find you. I'm not sure I want an electronic tattle-tale in my pocket or laptop bag letting an advertiser -- or a clever hacker -- know where I am all the time.

The one thing I do know for sure is that no matter what form LBS takes, it's coming. Sooner rather than later, we'll all be using it. I hope it works more for our benefit than our detriment.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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