Location-Based Services: Discovering Old and New Paths

Lately I’ve been hearing the same question over and over: “What are location-based services?” It could have something to do with rapid evolution in mobile technologies, as question marks often shroud fast-moving industries.

But what is LBS? It used to mean the oft-cited “Walk by a Starbucks and get hit with a mobile coupon…” That got old quick and has been mostly discredited for privacy concerns and other realities.

Since then, we’ve settled into a more realistic notion of serving listings based on explicit mobile local queries. In other words, it’s come to look a lot like online search.

That’s not such a bad thing: search has improved content delivery and ad performance over many existing media, due to clearer expression of user intent. But does the mobile device possess capabilities that can make it even more effective at satisfying user intent?

Bring On the Decimals

Where we are today is what I like to call mobile local 1.0. This is defined by all the mobile apps or sites that simply replicate an online experience. You know the type: “what” and “where” search boxes, list results, some reviews, maybe a map, etc.

But we’re starting to see a few products break that mold by taking into account the realities of the device: it knows where you are, and it’s not as conducive to typing (tapping). Call me crazy, but do these beg for something different? Perhaps finding things for you?

If so, this could be an ironic return to that old Starbucks example of getting stuff pushed to you. It would obviously have to happen in a more nuanced and evolved way — maybe governed by things like pre-set preferences, behavioral targeting, or “social search.”

Exhibit A: Aloqa

Aloqa is one example. The app, available in the Android marketplace, is a series of “channels” for points of interest. These include “coffee” “restaurants,” and brands like McDonald’s.

There are default channels and customizable ones. Picture it like the home screen of the iPhone. Once users choose their channels, they can drill down into each one and set preferences (“I like Peets but not Starbucks”).

From there, the app pushes notification whenever the device comes within range of relevant items or events. Channels can get recommended similar to the way Amazon recommends books, or Netflix recommends movies.

Social media is also a key part of the equation in order to see nearby friend alerts or recommendations for things to do. To do this, it will tap into existing social graphs, using APIs from Facebook and others that are becoming increasingly “location-aware.”

“It’s the anti-Twitter,” Aloqa CEO Sanjeev Agrawal told me. “Twitter tells people what you’re doing. Aloqa tells you what you could be doing.”


Exhibit B: Geodelic

Geodelic is moving in a similar direction. Like Aloqa, it operates as more of a discovery engine than a search engine, automatically serving different points of interest based on where users are.

The company’s “Sherpa” application comes pre-loaded on T-Mobile’s myTouch3G (a.k.a. the “G2”) and offers everything from the historical significance of a city intersection to promotions within a mall or store.

Users can then choose to drill down deeper into certain categories or specific points of interest that are recommended. The drill-down isn’t only treated as an “opt in” for more info, but also a more precise fix on a user’s location.

Geodelic is building databases of geocoded content with theme parks, malls, casinos, and other sources of localized content and promotions. The long tail of fragmented small businesses will come later, said founder and CEO Rahul Sonnad — harder to tackle, but a massive market opportunity.


Getting Warmed Up

The common thread of these apps is their shift from search to search+discovery. Another to watch is mobilepeople, which recently built the entire DexKnows line of mobile local search apps, and has more to come.

And let’s not forget Urbanspoon, the original local discovery engine for the iPhone. Others to keep an eye on are blending social features such as Foursquare, Google Latitude, and Yelp’s quickly evolving mobile apps.

The next evolutionary step will involve more inputs, such as voice (Vlingo) and visual (ShopSavvy). Further off, we’ll see an explosion in augmented reality (AR). This is the subject of lots of recent buzz (and a subject for a whole separate column).

AR will be the logical extension of all of the above trends, using smart phone screens as viewfinders to overlay visual cues and points of interest throughout cityscapes. So far we’ve seen a few early examples of what this could look like, including Layar, and Yelp’s “Monacle.”

There are data, UI, and adoption challenges with all of these products, but we’re getting closer. It’s all about thinking outside of the box — literally, the search engine query box. Mobile search is a whole different animal, which will continue becoming less recognizable from its online ancestors.

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