The Evolution of Location Based Services

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More than a decade ago when mobile infrastructure companies, service providers, and device makers started working on Location Based Services (LBS), analysts predicted LBS as "the next big thing” in the mobile services market. Operators had expected to increase their average revenue per user (ARPU) by deploying location services. Network infrastructure vendors made significant investments on increasing the accuracy of a user’s location using various technologies like GPS, AGPS, and cell-IDs. And, application vendors and device makers were pretty excited about the possibilities of LBS. But, "the next big thing” never happened.

One reason for that might be because the ecosystem for LBS hasn’t been ready until now. In the last few months alone there has been a lot of traction for LBS that has been fuelled mainly by the exponential growth in the use of smartphones, the deployment of high speed mobile broadband networks across the globe, the shift in consumer preferences, and the sudden surge in social networking tools like facebook, Twitter, Google+, and others.

Strategy Analytics, a market research firm, forecasts that location-based services are expected to bring in $10 billion in revenue by 2016. And the biggest chunk would come from Location Based Marketing (LBM) and Location Based Social Networking (LBSN).

Location Based Marketing (LBM) is an application sponsoring by a brand and advertisements sent to the mobile device in accordance with a range of criteria including a subscriber’s current location. There is a big business opportunity in pushing tailored, local ads to a personal device like a smartphone. Google, WHERE, and Groupon are some of the companies who are eying this slice of pie.

Another area which holds lot of promise is Location Based Social Networking (LBSN). It adds a touch of reality to the virtual worlds of social networks. In fact, it helps you to move from virtual social network to a real social network in real time. It looks exciting to locate your friends quickly move from Facebook conversations to in-person meeting. Last year, Facebook launched Facebook Places, which helps your friends know about places like the cinema or restaurants where you’ve visited. This way they can also take an informed decision about visiting these places.

How does LBS work?
Location –Based Services leverage a user’s current physical location to provide an enhanced service or experience. LBS is a wireless-IP service that uses geographical information to serve a mobile user. Location information can be used for a variety of purposes—from providing directions to the nearest movie theatre to monitoring the locations of a school bus—and the wide-open nature of the market means there is plenty of room for innovative ideas. LBS are powered by the following key technologies:

  • Cell ID—Used in GSM/3G networks, identifies the cell site to which a user is currently connected, mapping it to coordinates for determining the user’s location.
  • Global Positioning System (GPS)—GPS uses a network of 24 satellites to triangulate a receiver’s position and provide latitude and longitude coordinates.
  • Assisted GPS (A-GPS)—Combination of cellular networks and GPS provides indoor location information and in harsh environments such as urban canyons and deep forest.

For deploying LBS, various infrastructural elements are required:

  • Mobile devices such as smartphones, feature phones with LBS capabilities, and tablets are needed to request information. .
  • A communication network is needed to transfer the user data and service request from the mobile terminal to the service provider, and then the requested information back to the user.
  • A positioning component such as a Mobile Communication Network and GPS technology is needed to determine the user geographic position. .
  • Service and application providers offer different services to the user (route finder, yellow pages, etc.) and are responsible for the service request processing.
  • Data and content provider maintain geographic base data and location information data, both of which can be provided to service providers.

In the connected world where humans use machines to connect with one another and machines communicate to other machines, there can be thousands of applications of LBS that are limited only by developers’ imagination. That said, there are some broad categories that have clear definition.

  • Emergency services—These include public and private emergency services and they provide the ability to locate an individual who is either unaware of his or her exact location or is not able to reveal it because of an emergency situation (accidents, terrorist attack, and so on).
  • Navigation needs—These are used for direction and way finding. The popular examples are mapping, navigation, and directions applications.
  • Management needs—Workforce-tracking and management applications help enterprises optimize utilization of their people, supplies, and equipment in the field. Industry segments include security, logistics, transport, and service businesses.
  • Game playing—Entertainment and gaming applications can create interactive gaming experiences and services that complement sporting events, concerts, and more.
  • Information services—Location-sensitive information services mostly refer to the digital distribution of information based on device location, time specificity, and user behavior. Finding the nearest service or accessing traffic news are examples
  • Advertising—Location sensitive alerts and advertisements can be distributed to users. Some examples could be discount sale ads by a store in a mall.
  • Leisure activities—LBS can be used for leisure services like friend finder, dating services, and instant messaging.

The road to success of LBS is not a smooth ride; it has its fair share of bumps and potholes. The biggest concern for consumers is related to privacy of location data. The reports of tracking/hacking of iPhones and Android devices by journalists in the UK this past summer have further added to concern over personal data in general and LBS data specifically. The industry and standards bodies like OMA and 3GPP have painstakingly defined privacy checks related procedures. Not only the commercial service providers, but end consumers should also be conscious about sharing location details. Users should be absolutely sure about what they want to share with whom. Despite these concerns, I think, LBS will be “the next big thing” as pundits predicted long ago. Now is the right time for it; the ecosystem is in place. Now we need to imagine and build various applications that would make consumers find more value in it.

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