Sunday, April 22, 2007

Location based services, applications and products

The Wireless Communication Alliance (WCA) held a panel discussion on location based services, applications and products on Tuesday, April 17th. The WCA is a non-profit organization which hosts some very good events on wireless technology in Silicon Valley. Location based means that the device has the capability of knowing its own location. One of the more common means by which this is achieved is by using a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver on the device. The initial GPS satellites were deployed by the US Department of Defense and they are continually monitored and maintained by the DoD. In recent times the technology has seen rapid deployment in commercial devices such as cars, cell phones etc due to the availability of low cost receiver ( sub $5) devices.

The panel consisted Mike McMullen, VP, Sprint PCS, Jaap Groot from Tedyo Holding Inc., Greg Turetzky from SiRF, John Ellenby from GeoVector and the Director of Marketing from Loopt. They were pretty unanimous in their opinion that every mobile device would have location based capabilities very soon. SiRF is one of the earliest semiconductor companies to offer discrete GPS silicon. For cost, power, accuracy and availability reasons, the technology has been slow penetrate the cell phone space. The main chip suppliers for GPS are TI, Qualcomm and SiRF. In spite of the Federal mandate to associate a physical address with the telephone number of a person calling 911 in the US, GPS is still not universal on all cell phones. The mandate is met in different ways by providers. Some providers who have GPS in all cell phones meet E911 requirements indoors by cell tower triangulation and outdoors by GPS. However, cost and accuracy limit the capability. Today most GPS enabled devices cost around $200. When the chip costs drop to $1, significantly more devices will be enabled.

As one of the panelists quoted an ex-Trimble employee, " every object has an inherent right to know where it is". Accepting this thesis, one can easily see a wide range of applications for location based services such as - finding devices not in your hand, finding friends (who want to be found :-)), emergency services, increasing what you can see beyond what is possible now and so on. Today from a service provider's point of view, the cost to find the location of a friend on the network is about 20c. Loopt, a Sequoia funded startup, for example, sees a wide range of possibilities for social mapping of friends. GeoVector's technology adds direction to position information thus enabling a wider range of possibilities for location based services. They claim to "enable finding stuff where you are not and getting to it".

As with most technology, promise takes a long time to deliver. But, it certainly appears that a veritable explosion of location based devices and services are on the horizon. Soon, we will be expecting location capabilities on every reasonably valuable device we own from cell phones, to cameras and even sneakers, not to mention embedding this capability on pets and children. Surely, one is led to believe that Silicon Valley and the Bay Area will once again be a prime mover in this high potential space, if one follows the example of SiRF, Loopt and GeoVector.


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