Honing in on LBS

One of the more interesting technology showcase demos at the Shanghai Expo was the first device designed to work across different satellite positioning systems. The device - developed by ZTE and Intellect Telecom, the R&D division of Russian financial corporation JSFC Sistema - works on both GPS and Glonass, and purportedly also works with the upcoming Beidou and Galileo systems from China and the EU, respectively. 

Neither ZTE not Intellect Telecom gave an indication of when the device would be available commercially. If nothing else, it's not bad timing, considering the growing ubiquity of GPS in handsets. Research firm iSuppli estimates that by the fourth quarter of next year, close to 80% of handsets shipped that quarter will have GPS chips inside them (up from just over 56% in Q1 2009), thanks chiefly to the smartphone boom. (By 2014, incidentally, over 40% of portable video game consoles will also have embedded GPS.)

How many of those might contain multi-mode positioning chips is hard to say 'probably not many. But that may be beside the point in the longer term - GPS is increasingly becoming just one small piece of a much more complex LBS puzzle. 

That's not to say that the rise of GPS hasn't done wonders for LBS in general in terms of emergency services and getting more consumers to use location-based devices like PNDs and automotive navigation systems, and putting a premium on accuracy.

But GPS has always been hobbled by its line-of-sight limitations. GPS can get you from Point A to Point B (provided you don't have to travel through an urban canyon - or a natural canyon - to get there), but if Point B is the inside of a shopping complex or underground market, you might as well buy a paper map. Supplemental cellular-based technologies from Cell ID to A-GPS can help to varying degrees, but accuracy varies widely. Plus, until recently, LBS apps weren't that compelling or easy to use, and were offered as a premium part of the cellco's walled garden. 

The latter is changing rapidly, thanks to the rise of more sophisticated smartphone platforms as well as social networking apps that make use of the geotagging metadata in the handsets. As an example, the Apple App Store alone has over 6,000 LBS apps available for the iPhone, says iSuppli. Moreover, the iPhone 4 makes use of accelerometer and gyroscope technology for more accurate indoor navigation. Meanwhile, Nokia and Google caused a stir after offering navigation apps on Symbian and Android, respectively, for free. 

By no coincidence, Apple and Google see the vast potential of the apps ecosystem to drive the long-awaited market for location-based ads, and have invested in it accordingly, with Apple's iAd platform for iPhone 4 and Google's acquisition of AdMob. 

As for the indoor accuracy issue, ABI Research reckons there's a huge opportunity here for alternative wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC and even 2D barcodes to serve as localized reference points for LBS apps and services. Between these and the efforts from Apple, Google, Nokia, Microsoft and Facebook, ABI expects alternative location technology penetration to grow 400% across a range of portable devices, location technologies and location providers.

What that means in terms of actual usage and revenues remains to be seen. Berg Insight predicts that mobile LBS subscribers will grow to 195 million worldwide by 2015 (from 44 million in June this year). That's a relatively small number, underscored by the interesting Berg statistic that while over 70% of US mobile users have a GPS-enabled handset, less than 10% actually subscribe to mobile navigation services.

Still, the combination of third-party apps development, more powerful smartphones and increased accuracy via alternative indoor location technology should bring us closer than ever to unlocking the true potential of LBS that's eluded the mobile industry for years.