Sprint still out in front with LBS applications


Sprint still out in front with LBS applications
Sprint Navigation, Family Locator, GPShopper and now FriendFinder? Sprint Nextel is on a veritable location-based services bender. The carrier has consistently been first to market (out of the big four U.S. carriers) with LBS applications and with good reason: The worldwide mobile LBS market will reach $1.5 billion in 2007, according to a report from Insight Research. 

Because U.S. CDMA operators use GPS as their technology to support E911 initiatives, they have had a leg up on their GSM rivals. Sprint, more than any other carrier, has taken advantage of this, at least in terms of being a first-mover. This week Sprint launched a FriendFinder service powered by loopt. Sprint's wholly owned MVNO Boost Mobile has offered the same service for nearly a year now and Sprint decided the service was successful enough to port it over to its subscribers, too.

Similarly, last year the Disney Mobile MVNO announced plans (before it launched) for a Family Locator service, and Sprint quickly rolled out a similar service itself before the MVNO running on its network went live. Services like Family Locator are a no-brainer as far as LBS applications go: Privacy issues are minimal because the people being located are kids who have phones within their parents' family plan. If you own the phone, few will argue with you over your right to locate it. Well, maybe the kids will.

Friend Finder services, however, bring up a number of issues, including privacy and inter-carrier LBS networks. As WaveMarkets' CEO Tasso Roumeliotis recently told me: "The core problem that the operators are rightfully concerned about[with Friend Finder applications] is privacy. Are we really ready to have our 14-year-old girls tracked? Do we want to go there?" Roumeliotis said that he and WaveMarket have learned from experience: Friend finder services are a "poor investment for any startup."

Tell that to loopt, the two-year-old startup founded by 20-year-old Sam Altmand while he was still a student at Stanford University. Now 22, Altman has led the company through angel funding from Y Combinator, a deal with Boost Mobile, a series A VC funding from Sequoia Capital and New Enterprises Associates and now a big deal with Sprint Nextel. Altman claims loopt is leading the charge on the technical issues surrounding a cross-carrier Friend Finder service and with two more big deals on the horizon, we could see a truly useful friend tracking application in the U.S. After all, few friends flock to the same network for love of the brand, unless of course they're iPhone users.

So what's next for Sprint on the LBS front? They seem to have all the bases covered for location-based services: family, shopping, navigation and friends. As far as I can tell, only the cliché (like Starbucks couponing) and the lame (like LBS-based mobile blogging) remain. -Brian