Consumer Demand for Real-time Location Grows

By Steve Lombardi

Dodgeball A few weeks ago, Dodgeball was featured on NPR, prompting a few of us in the MapPoint group to try it out.Dodgeball stands out from the pack of contemporary friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) networks like Friendster and Tribe with an interesting twist - the use of location to let you know when a friend or an acquaintance a few degrees removed is nearby.We spend a lot of time thinking about social networks, like your MSN contact list, and how location and presence information can make them more useful, so this seemed like a natural fit and caught our collective "eye." Much like the other FOAF services, you need to fill in a brief profile about yourself, and then nag your friends to do the same, finally adding each other to your friends list.Then, in theory, the fun begins - you go about your life moving freely through space and receive a text message on your mobile when someone in your network is nearby. Cool concept that definitely sounded worth checking out.

I left one important detail about Dodgeball out.It doesn't have the ability to tap into a user's real-time location based on their mobile phone's position in the wireless operator network - instead it relies on users continually sending SMS messages to the Dodgeball server specifying their location.Then Dodgeball in turn sends a message to members of your network that are in the vicinity to let them know your whereabouts.

Weeks go by and not a peep from Dodgeball telling me I'm ever near anyone.For the same reason that no one ever got a message from me saying 'Steve is nearby' - it's a tedious manual process to keep SMSing your location.I was compelled to SMS my location to the Dodgeball servers exactly zero times - and I'm a gadget and location junkie.And since Dodgeball will always report your last known location to your contacts, you are forced to keep sending these SMS's if you move, or the system is always spewing no longer relevant information to your network of contacts.Ugly indeed.

Finally one recent Saturday night I was on my way to see one of my new favorite local bands, IQU (they're sorta like Devo meets Stereolab), when I got an SMS.It's from Dodgeball: "Your friend Brian is at Chop Suey".HEY! No Way! That's where I was heading. Against all odds, the system had worked and achieved exactly what it was built to do - let friends know when others are nearby.Seeing it work this way showed me first hand some of the promise of Dodgeball, but still didn't convince me that it could succeed without the integration of real-time location.

Seeing this glimmer of functionality was just a tease that made me want the service even more.In its current state it's a great novelty for early adopters and technoweenies to play around with, but until the system can automatically determine participants' locations and match them up without manual intervention, it's doomed to obscurity and will die of attrition.I don't know the folks who run Dodgeball, but they seem bright enough and certainly have a winning concept on their hands.I'd bet they're hard at work on solving this problem.The MapPoint Location Server could go a long way to getting them over the real-time location hump ...or could it? The Location Server has done a fine job of solving the Real Time (RT) location problem for businesses large and small, but consumer applications face an entirely new class of problems that need to be solved.

Dodgeball is just the latest case for the demand for easy to access, widespread use of RT location in consumer applications.While still maintaining respect for privacy as it relates to location, there are dozens of cases where users want to willingly release their location to others for specific purposes.Finding lost Alzheimer's patients, your MSN Messenger buddy list, roadside assistance, tracking young children, concierge services, etc...Or check out this extreme case - Granted, most of us aren't going to be running the streets playing Pacman with locatable phones, but all of this demand leads to the need for location sharing across networks.

Not everyone in your circle of friends and family is using the same brand of phone you are.Imagine the inconvenience if you could only phone or SMS others that had the same wireless operator as you.Additionally, consumer focused location applications introduce the need for scalability far beyond that needed for business applications.A typical enterprise might have hundreds or thousands of mobile workers they want to track in a field force automation application. These businesses in many cases will have more control over what wireless networks they are working with.But consumer applications can be measured in hundreds of thousands or millions of users, spread across a dozen wireless networks.This introduces a whole new set of challenges, challenges that need to be met for applications like Dodgeball or location presence in Instant Messenger need in order to succeed.

Published Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

Written by Steve Lombardi

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