Battle for Location SupremacyTuesday, July 08, 2008
Location-based services are already becoming important for the wireless industry. Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, AT&T Wireless and other network operators are embracing location services because they provide additional income and/or additional data usage (mostly on 3G networks) and because they believe location-based services (LBS) will become embedded into almost every application that is used on their networks in the future.
Companies such as Networks In Motion, TeleNav and others are providing turn-by-turn directions and adding pseudo-real-time traffic reports to their on-handset location programs-and my new car's navigation system includes the capability for XM Radio traffic reporting service (major highways and cities). When Sprint sent me its new Instinct to try the onboard navigation system using the Tele Atlas mapping database (now owned by TomTom), it instantly picked up my location even though I was inside my office. I can share my location with friends, get turn-by-turn directions, find the nearest airport and any number of other things I haven't explored yet.
There is no doubt that the wireless industry is quickly embracing location-based services, and while today's traffic reports are often stale and congestion shown on maps is long gone by the time we get there, things will be getting better in the near future.
Wireless is not the only industry that has its eye on LBS, as I said, my new car has a navigation system with Navteq maps, turn-by-turn directions and XM Radio traffic, and a recent article in Newsweek described a radar detector company that is rethinking its products to make them more appealing. Many people don't use radar detectors because they don't feel they need them or have experienced them going off every time they pass an automatic door that uses the same radio frequency. The new twist in radar detectors is that they have an embedded GPS chip and a variety of databases, some of which can be updated by plugging the device into a PC. These databases alert drivers when they approach an intersection that has cameras to catch people running red lights and also tell drivers when they are entering school zones. One model includes a sensor to let drivers know when an emergency vehicle is near so they can pull over and give it room.
Meanwhile, TomTom, Garmin and others who make dashboard-mounted navigation systems have begun adding features including one-way wireless to receive traffic information. One company (tk) even has a setup that enables its nav systems to "talk" to each other so they can be updated with traffic information in real time. Many of these devices have built-in Bluetooth so they can also be used as hands-free devices for wireless phones, and I suspect there are many more ideas in the works. It is possible that someone might even merge a navigation system with a radar detector, although radar detectors are illegal in some states.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for Wireless Week about how the wireless industry had an opportunity to "capture" the location business, not only for wireless devices but for automobiles, navigation systems and now, it appears, radar detectors as well. The article was intended to challenge the wireless industry to step up its involvement with the auto and other industries interested in location services for their customers. Later I wrote an article about my vision that my phone will be the command-and-control device my car senses when I get in. Based on my profile, the car will recognize me, set my seat and mirrors, turn on my favorite radio station, adjust the temperature, log into the navigation system and, if it is my normal commute time, compute my route, noting any traffic issues. I would also expect to someday receive email and text messages on my screen, perhaps with voice recognition and the ability to answer via voice.
A lot has happened in this industry since I wrote those articles and participated in SiRFecosystem's Location 2.0 Summit in San Francisco last year (being held again in September). Two companies, Navteq and Tele Atlas, provide the digital mapping data almost all companies use for turn-by-turn directions, mapping and other purposes.
Last year, Nokia purchased Navteq and then TomTom bought Tele Atlas while Google and Microsoft became more deeply involved in the map business. Google's maps are based on both the Navteq and Tele Atlas databases and Google Earth is a free, widely used program with a more advanced version available by subscription. I was not all that surprised when Google did not make a play for Tele Atlas since TomTom doesn't seem to be a serious competitor. However, I was surprised when Google sat by while Nokia bought Navteq since Nokia clearly is a competitor. Perhaps Google is building its own database. Fleets of Google camera cars (automobiles equipped with 360-degree cameras mounted on top) have been seen driving around in many places including the United States, France and other countries. They provide Google with photo images of the streets they are driving that can be viewed on the Internet. Google is also openly asking for photos and mapping information from anyone and everyone who wants to contribute.
Microsoft is busy working on its mapping and aerial view maps, and it also uses Navteq's maps and Tele Atlas data. Microsoft has been fairly low key about its efforts, but it has perhaps the best voice recognition software, which is being built into a number of Ford vehicles. If you combine its maps with turn-by-turn directions and voice recognition, Microsoft could prove to be a fierce competitor.
It appears to me as though Nokia is going after the location space in a big way. In addition to buying Navteq, other deals are about to be announced. Nokia seems to understand that end-to-end traffic and navigation solutions will help it win a larger share of the LBS market. And Nokia has an advantage over Google and Microsoft because it has strong relationships with many wireless network operators around the world, having been in the infrastructure business for a long time (now Nokia Siemens) and being the world leader in handset sales.
This may not seem like a big advantage in today's location marketplace, but even with GPS built into phones, the network element of location is a critical factor in the success of products and services. For example, when starting up a built-in phone navigation system, the first location fix is usually provided by the network and it helps the onboard GPS system find its satellites more quickly. Once the handset has acquired the GPS fix, the network may or may not be needed to continue tracking the location of the device. If the handheld GPS loses contact with enough satellites to keep its bearings, the network-based system can assist it.
Nokia's network customers are GSM and UMTS network operators (not CDMA). GSM does not include GPS capabilities at the cell sites, so Nokia has a great opportunity to assist these operators in adding GPS to their networks as well as to provide GPS-equipped phones and handheld devices. So while Google, Microsoft and others are working to provide services using the wireless networks, Nokia is working to help embed location-determining components directly into the networks. This means network operators will be able to use the technologies and increase their income.
Google, Microsoft and others must be able to obtain handset location from the network operator if they are to provide location services over a wireless network. This can be done crudely by receiving non-GPS information through one or more network technologies, or it can be done using the network's location-determining technology plus the GPS receiver in the handset. In any event, the network operator has to be willing to hand off the location of a specific handset to the location services provider. With "open access," as in any device to any content or service, wireless devices equipped with GPS receivers could be set up to send that location information across the network but, again from what I understand, it still takes concurrence of the network operator.
This is one reason Nokia has an advantage in this marketplace, working with network operators on a daily basis and helping increase their revenue from data usage. Others have found new ways to work with network operators. For example, Networks In Motion, which provides the navigation software and turn-by-turn directions for Verizon Wireless (among other networks), has a revenue sharing plan in place with Verizon. Others in the LBS space will find out over time that they need to partner with network operators in order to be successful.
How big and how important is the location segment of the market? I believe it is a critical component to driving data usage across wireless networks. Today, there are a number of standalone applications such as turn-by-turn directions, traffic information and dispatch applications for tracking and routing delivery and service vehicles. In the future, LBS will be embedded in applications including games, photo and video services and business and travel applications. If the wireless industry is smart, the wireless device, equipped with GPS and location capabilities, will become the brains of all of the other devices built and designed to use location and wireless offerings.
In the meantime, the marriage of wireless with location in every type of device from our phones to our personal navigation units and, yes, even our radar detectors, will open up opportunities for new services and revenue sources. If you want to find out how pervasive the marriage of wireless and location will be, join me at SiRFecosystem's Location 2.0 Summit in September.
Andrew M. Seybold