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Location, Location

 Some notes on a BBC Podcast, Peter Day’s World of Business, transmitted on 22 June 2009 (it should be available in the archive of past episodes).

An interesting episode on how location is becoming an increasingly important tool in how we think about computing.  The programme consisted of a series of short interviews, firstly with the managers of selected companies marketing different geographically aware products, then with a couple of industry commentators to sum up the issues.

The following products (and managers) were featured:

  • Eye-Fi (Jeff Holove), whose digital card for cameras has built-in wifi connection and automatic geotagging of the location the photo was taken.
  • Skyhook (Ted Morgan, Chief Executive), who determine location based on proximity to wifi beacons, rather than GPS which often doesn’t work indoors.
  • Air Semiconductor (Stephen Graham), who have developed a very low-power device that allows mobile devices constantly to keep track of where they are, even when otherwise switched off.
  • Google’s mobile team (Hugo Barra, head of product management), on how they are looking to use location to generate more relevant search results.
  • Onstar (Nick Pudar, VP Business Planning and Business Development), General Motors’ vehicle control system in the USA.

In each case there was a short explanation of what was innovative about the product and the problem it was trying to solve. 

The discussion I found the most interesting was with Graham of Air Semiconductor, as it showed how solving one particular problem can open up unexpected opportunities in other areas.  Using GPS as a location-finding device on laptops is a problem because 90% of the time they are powered up indoors, where GPS signals are often not available.  By leaving the location-tracking device on, even when the laptop is otherwise switched off, it can keep track of where it is.  If the signal is lost it remembers its last known location.  This means that the power usage has to be shrunk so that it doesn’t run the battery down – Graham claims a 100x lower power consumption than anyone else. 

The potential market for this is anything that moves, and not just the obvious mobile devices (laptops, phones etc), but also animals, children or patients who might wander off and get lost.  A further use is for capacity planning purposes – estimating the number of people passing a particular point by counting the number of devices (as they are on).  I’m not sure that it adds much in this respect as presumably this is already possible by counting mobile phones.

There was also a good quote from Hugo Barra of Google.  The discussion covered how location knowledge could be used to better rank search results – and more pertinently, more relevant advertisements.  Discussing the impact of location on advertising, particularly on mobile devices where there is so much less display space available, Barra agreed that they have to make sure that the ad experience on mobile is in no way overwhelming.  Google nirvana is “to give one ad that gives you exactly what you are asking for at that place and time”.

The final section of the programme discussed the possible downsides of your location always being known.  What about privacy?  David Wood of the Symbian Foundation luoted Mark Zuckerman of Facebook, who thinks there’s a kind of Moore’s Law in terms of personal information – every two years we become twice as comfortable about revealing information about ourselves.  At the same time, the industry has to keep customers onside; it can’t go too far or there might be a backlash.  In future it may be that society as a whole finds it easier to have personal information available all the time by default, and individuals may choose to pay to hide some of it. 

Henry Holzman, Chief Knowledge Officer of MIT Media Labs suggested that the future may be less about identifying the location of a device and more about identifying an individual on arriving at a location, e.g. a store may want to recognise me when I enter to draw my attention to certain targeted products.  Mobile technologies are drastically changing the landscape and people aren’t aware of their implications, especially youth who aren’t experienced enough to see the implications of what they post on Facebook etc.  “It will be very very interesting to see how society adapts in 10-20 years to these different sets of norms”.

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