The How, What and Why of Where 2.0 2010

April 8, 2010

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It's been a few years since I've been to the Where 2.0 Conference and according to the conference chairman, Brady Forrest, the same is true for founder Tim O'Reilly, who started the conference back in 2005.So what's different this year? Why did O'Reilly choose 2010 to reappear and perhaps jump-start the conference? I found a clue in the way the conference was organized. The conference offered three tracks: mobile, social and mapping technology. But it was the convergence of these technologies and their impact on social networking that energized the event. In short, the conference looked to be revving the engines of software developers for the next wave of the mobile location-based services (LBS) market and shaping its future.

The common denominator in the market for mobile location technology and LBS is the smartphone, now a robust platform for running thousands of applications. GPS-enabled smartphones can geolocate anyone at anytime, and the myriad apps now available for the iPhone, Blackberry and others have catalyzed the social networking movement and given hope for location-based advertising. It may seem obvious now, but it was not until a significant percentage of handsets were GPS-enabled that the explosion of social gaming like Foursquare or Gowalla had a chance to survive. You could argue the iPhone had more to do with this than anything else. Now, applications like Twitter and Facebook are weighing just how to leverage location to play in the same space.

Tasso Roumeliotis of Wavemarket quoted the statistic that 18% of cellular phones are capable of running those robust apps that enable "check-ins" to a favorite spot, be that a club, gym, restaurant, rail station ...virtually anywhere you want to drop a marker. That number is growing at 1% per quarter according to Roumeliotis, leaving a vast, untapped audience yet to be captured.

What the conference exploited was the growing need to offer deep dives into the new trends from the mobile-social-mapping technology providers.

For the mapping technology providers, it's all about the platform, and Google and Microsoft are king and queen of the jungle, though not necessarily in that order. Quite frankly, the big question is whether each is content to be simply a mapping platform and search provider or whether either will eventually acquire one of the big players in social networking like Twitter or Facebook. Neither would hint at any future acquisition. That result would be to immediately location-enable millions of users, even more so than they are now. Somehow Google and Microsoft must realize they need to make a move soon because the stampede is on and they risk losing out on a sizable chunk of the location-based advertising market by waiting too long.

Microsoft has made enormous strides in bringing Bing Maps on par with, and I might suggest even surpassing, Google Maps. Blaise Aguera y Arca, the director of Bing Maps, used the analogy of "trellis and grapes" to explain how "platform" and "apps," respectively, comprise the Microsoft strategy. "Bing Maps is a contextual platform," said Aguera y Arca. He explained that the history of development of Virtual Earth provided a very accurate geometry base for its mapping technology and "structured imagery" like satellite data and aerial imagery. But in addition, Aguera y Arca explained, it comprises a base for historical photographs, Twitter feeds and other real-time content from blogs to hyperlocal ads and other contextual data that make Bing a rich experience for the user. In short, it's a platform, and it's building a library of apps directly from the Bing Maps interface.

The ever-thoughtful Michael T. Jones, chief technology advocate from Google, offered much the same message. "Maps aren't just driving directions; maps are a way that humans understand their planet ... Imagine a world where every single place had a detailed history and where you can leave notes (something that Zoom Atlas is now exploiting)." Jones believes that maps should be viewed as a "place browser" to go to places virtually and know them better than you would by going there on your own. Jones offered a new meaning for maps: "Today: place browser, application platform, place of business. Tomorrow: social hub and mobile application." Is that a hint? Who might Google buy next?

Every "hot" or "previously hot" social networking app provider was on stage at this conference to tout how they were going to leverage location. Perhaps Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare, provided the most insightful analogy. Foursquare is "Twitter with location." And that's just how each is now trying to position itself to compete. Crowley also said that when he first started to evaluate how "check-ins" would work, it wasn't very valuable. "After a while you would get tired," said Crowley. "I wanted to turn life into a game." And so Foursquare was born. For Crowley, Foursquare is not about where you've been; it's about what you are doing there and the people you are doing it with. "This," he said, "leads to some very interesting social applications." Like demographic analysis.

But the very valuable business applications of social networking or the data that can be derived from the petabytes of location-based information captured from mobile gaming is nearly lost here in the hype. This is a significant drawback of Where 2.0. There's too much "whiz-bang" and not enough "whiz-buck." You just don't hear about the risk reward of these ventures, the money being spent on startups or the business model that will sustain them when the venture capital money runs out.

In this regard, Where 2.0 is more about generating ideas than it is about understanding sustainable business models and how these applications or platforms intend to generate revenue. Even discussions about location-based advertising were muted. For example, Foursquare is all about demographic matching and psychographic profiling and I would have like to have heard more about how Crowley is going to market the service to local businesses, which they have begun to do, albeit modestly. There is real marketing power in the data Foursquare is collecting. However, no one discussed an analysis of the data and or providing business owners a service for a fee that would help them increase sales.

Anecdotally, I was speaking with Ted Morgan, CEO of Skyhook Wireless, and Dan Gilmartin, vice president of marketing for Where, and discussing their experiences with Foursquare. Morgan and Gilmartin shared that when either pronounced his Foursquare status to a local business establishment, saying that he was the "mayor" of that establishment (a distinction awarded to the most frequent customer), the general reaction of the proprietor was, "That's nice, now are you going to order a pizza or what?" What, no freebies, no bennies for such a loyal customer? As this experience shows, the market is largely untapped, and many local business owners just haven't caught on. Though others that Crowley pointed to, like some casinos in Las Vegas, get it in spades (pun intended). The potential for location-based loyalty programs is in its infancy and applications like Foursquare and Gowalla may hold the key to that market, as well as location-based advertising.

Twitter seems to be taking a hybrid approach to location. It will add location when needed. Othman Laraki, director of geo for Twitter and the founder of Mixer Labs, which was acquired by Twitter earlier this year, wants to create a "frictionless way [for users] to express their context." Said Laraki, "Geo creates a market that is locally applicable and relevant ... If you are a cyclist, we want you to reach other cyclists nearby."

So, what about Yelp? What about Loopt? While they remain established location-based social networking players, each seemed a little on the "outs" with the "check-in" phenomenon. The comments made by Sam Altman of Loopt, for example, seemed to suggest that its strategy was one of playing "catch-up" to the others.

The linchpin = smartphones. As I said at the outset, smartphones have catalyzed mobile social networking. The big players, Apple, RIM/Blackberry and Nokia, are relying on app developers to bring them the ideas. These device manufacturers are providing the "other" platform, the hardware, the GPS chips, etc., while the "entrepreneurials" provide the ideas and assume the risk.

Nokia's Michael Halbherr, Ovi Maps vice president, offered the obvious advantages of its mapping technology: PND-grade, off-board navigation that is "always-connected" and, oh yeah, it's free and it has voice. So much for the Garmin Nuviphone. Halbherr said that Nokia is now the "undisputed leader in GPS devices, with 84 million devices [as of] January 2010." Nokia has app stores in 180 countries and because its CDMA (code division multiple access) phones are already GPS-enabled, it is already the largest provider of smartphones in non-U.S. markets.

Nokia is providing developers with APIs for "a new class of Web apps - context relevant applications so easy to build it's more like publishing than coding," said Halbherr. "From coding to publishing, [we want to] make it easy for content companies to get their content on a mobile handset." The strategy, according to Halbherr, is for Nokia to build the foundation for a global LBS platform. And of course, all of this is powered by NAVTEQ data, which is emerging as the winner in the street network war with TomTom. While TomTom's acquisition of Tele Atlas has left the company decimated by layoffs and departures, NAVTEQ chugs along and its parent company has the deep pockets to ride out the economic downturn and put its strategy to work.

Wavemarket is a company working with the handset providers and carriers on deriving geolocation regardless of the application. CTO Scott Hotes announced the launch of Veriplace, which offers the ability to locate just about any mobile device from any place on the network. Veriplace interacts directly with the carriers today through a REST (Representational State Transfer) service API for the AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile networks, and it is soon to add others. Hotes sees Veriplace opening up the market for carriers and application developers to support applications like mobile coupons and location-based advertising, SMS-based local search, and mobile banking and fraud detection, mostly because Veriplace offers better authentication and advanced privacy portal.

Where for Where?
Where 2.0 did a superb job of gathering the major parties to the table to discuss mobile-social-mapping. Even GIS stalwarts like Pitney Bowes Business Insight and ESRI were major sponsors this year, each offering components of their platforms to support app development. Autodesk's Geoff Zeiss was on the program offering suggestions on how to handle "large" geospatial datasets. But this is first and foremost a conference for developers. NAVTEQ NN4D, Yahoo Developer Network, Nokia and Wavemarket, as mentioned above, all touted their developer programs. Open source platforms were also prevalent and certainly offer another option. In the end, this is an "idea" conference, not a business conference. It's a place for offering platform solutions and testing apps, throwing them out to the community to see if they'll stick.


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