Webraska Emerges from LBS Fray and Charges into Next Phase

By Joe Francica

Webraska, a leading location-based services (LBS) company, has emerged from the LBS market downturn, adjusted their business model, and grown a following among wireless carriers to provide both off-board, PDA-based and telematics solutions.How did they do it and what's on the horizon for this survivor of LBS technology.That's the focus this interview with Barry Glick, Webraska's Chief Executive, conducted by Joe Francica, Directions' Editor-in-Chief.

1.First, how did Webraska get its name? (Its so close to "Nebraska" and so unusual that it is usually the first thing people notice, at least in the U.S.)
Webraska was founded in 1998, at a time when the obsession of the technology, media and investment communities in the fixed-line internet was approaching its peak.By contrast, the focus of the founders had always been on delivering the vision of wireless of "off-board" navigation on mobile internet-connected devices.  Delivery of their goal meant reaching beyond contemporary web-based thinking to a "greater web":  mobile, permanently accessible, location and spatially intelligent.
In searching for a brand name, the founders sought to capture the idea of "great web".  Co-founder and CEO, Jean-Michel Durocher hailed from North America, where the -aska suffix, in place names such as Nebraska, Alaska and Kamouraska means "great"; and so by implication "Webraska" means "great web".

2.Who were the original investors in Webraska?
The original investors were the founders, their families and friends.  Apax Partners and Argo Global Capital participated in the first round fund raising of €10million.

3.What markets were the original targets for Webraska during its inception? In-vehicle navigation? Fleet telematics?
The original market was for "wireless" or "off-board navigation" running on wireless internet devices such as SmartPhones or PDAs.  However, at the time of the creation of the company and the filing of its first patent, neither device nor network technologies were sufficiently advanced to sustain such services.  By contrast the telecom industry was actively pursuing opportunities for location-based services via WAP or SMS interfaces.  Webraska's strategy has been to pursue telecom and automotive targets in parallel, while investing continuously in the technologies supporting applications for both industries.

4.What changes have been made to Webraska's business model since its inception?
Webraska's business model has evolved over time to reflect the changing demands and constraints of markets, technologies, product ranges and customer thinking.  Currently the company supports different business models for WAP/SMS Location based services, Geospatial Middleware and navigation offerings reflecting the differing ways in which our customers generate value from our products and services.

5.During the "shakeout" period of LBS, Webraska acquired Airflash. What technology was acquired and how is it integrated into Webraska's product line?
Webraska was traditionally very strong in it development and delivery of core geospatial technology.Additionally, Webraska focused much of its application development in the telematics sector.Airflash, on the other hand, was using commercial geospatial platforms and building branded and custom applications into the wireless operators.It became clear that merging the two technology companies would provide the best of breed geospatial and applications for both telecom and telematics applications.

6."Personal Navigation" is a big part of Webraska's product offering. What is the penetration rate of wireless uses among the carriers to which you supply technology?
Typically, Webraska customers see usage numbers of between 50,000 to 100,000 subscribers a month.

7.Asian and European markets have been quicker to subscribe to wireless LBS services.Some of that has to do with infrastructure and some with billing options.Going forward, what products will be offered to these markets that they do not already have?
The major innovations reaching the market in the next 12 months will be:

  • For the consumer LBS market: downloadable applications for J2ME and BREW environments
  • For the mobile enterprise market: GPS and voice-enabled off-board navigation and tracking solutions.
  • 8.On the other hand, the U.S.has been slow to non-existent with respect to wireless LBS.What catalyst will be needed for U.S.wireless users to subscribe to location services?
    The principal catalysts are:
    • Increased network coverage
    • "Sensible" pricing plans
    • Rich, dynamic content
    • Colour high-resolution screens
    • Fast, accurate, subscriber position
    9.Many missteps were made to over hype LBS during 2000-2001.Where did everybody go wrong? Was too much made of "location" as a necessary component of services offered by carriers or did the stock market debacle simple take the "wind out of the sails?"
    The forecasts from 2000-2001 contained a number of errors:
    • They were based on highly aggressive launch schedules for 2.5G and 3G networks, associated devices, billing systems and content integration.  In practice these launches were delayed by at least a year.
    • There was confusion between "carrier to software vendor" revenues and "subscriber to carrier" revenues.  As a result some revenues were double counted.
    • Analysts significantly underestimated the time it would take for devices supporting a rich consumer experience to penetrate the market.  In practice, new technologies take at least 2 years to progress from launch to mass market.
    • Finally, many were guilty of over estimating demand in an attempt to reconcile reality with the expectations of investors and the public at large.
    10.The consolidation that followed the stock market crash was obviously a necessary and healthy adjustment.Who do you see as the strong players in LBS today?
    While there are many vendors who have deployed Location-Based Services to carriers in their own countries, Webraska is the only company to have successfully launched location based services with carriers on four continents.

    11.Can you provide a brief synopsis of the system architecture for the SmartZone GeoSpatial Platform? What is the spatial database you are using? What provisions are in place to scale the application? What does a carrier have to do to implement an LBS application?
    Webraska doesn't use a spatial database.We have a proprietary data format and data handling algorithms that are optimized for speed and performance. At the core of the SmartZone Geospatial Platform (SGP), is the Webraska mapping, routing, and geocoding engines.These are high-performance C engines, focused on spatial calculations for geocoding, mapping and routing. Additionally, we have two other optional engines for vector mapping and real-time traffic integration.The API layer is a Java interface to the core engines.We use a relational database (Oracle or MySQL) for address lookup, Points of Interest and Area of Interest management.Webraska provides data coverage for North America and/or Europe as part of the product offering. We also work with data providers in Asia to secure and utilize cartographic data in conjunction with our customers.Webraska GIS engineers then integrate this data into the SGP.

    Scaling the SGP solution is a simple matter of adding more engines to the solution.We use a Standard multi-tier, load balanced architecture optimized for performance (functionality and speed).Hence, if a carrier experiences more demand for maps, for example, another map engine can simple be added to the deployment.In this way, the carrier can target specific load requirements for their LBS solution.

    The Geospatial platform uses standard SOAP protocols for requests and responses to and from the platform.Additionally, a Java SDK is provided to aid developers in creating their LBS applications.Developers can request maps, routes, addresses, and points of interest information from the server using simple SOAP requests.The platform also comes with training and documentation interface call the Smartzone Geospatial Console.This is a GUI interface to the SGP.It enables developers to test geospatial request and response, as well as access the 12 User and Developer Guides available with the Geospatial platform.

    12.How many location-based queries are performed, on average, in a given day by carriers such as Orange?
    2000 to 3000 on average

    13.Where do you see the most useful applications of LBS for either personal, in-vehicle, or fleet management in the next 5 years?
    Targeting the youth market:  "Night Out" City Guides incorporating maps, directions and rich dynamic content.
    Targeting mobile professionals: Navigation and Tracking solutions based for GPS and A-GPS enabled SmartPhones.

    14.Dynamic, real-time information has great appeal for personal and fleet applications.Besides traffic, what other real-time data do you see as useful adjuncts and will people pay for it? Weather?
    Event-type data

    15.In the European market, how do you deliver POI data services? Per country? Pan European? What is the fee structure?
    Per carrier - most cases the carrier selects the POI supplier and Webraska integrates their data on a time and materials basis.  Applications and Middleware Software is licensed on a capacity basis.

    16.The "BuddyFinder" application seems to have achieved some level of success? Is it merely a "teaser" to introduce other personal applications? Where do you see the extension of this application in the corporate/enterprise market space?
    Entry-level Tracking solutions for managers of mobile workforces in SMEs/SMIs.

    17.Where do you see Webraska going next with product development?
    The emphasis will be on:

    • Improving speed, reliability, maintainability, robustness and performance of middleware
    • Exploiting capabilities of new devices - such as downloadable applications (J2ME/BREW) and navigation for SmartPhones and wireless PDAs.

    Published Friday, May 30th, 2003

    Written by Joe Francica



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