August 7, 2008

Brightkite and LinkedIN should drink from their own social cup (and bring along an old friend too)

Posted in Articles tagged , , , , , at 8:14 pm by siddey

There are lots of amazingly talented people online. Being able to establish contact with these people is what first drew me to services such as Twitter. Given my background in location based services, I have therefore recently migrated across to sites such as Brightkite which extend the Twitter model by adding a layer of geographic relevance. I can now not only converse online with local people that share similar interests but also selectively meet them in the flesh (the local vs. global village). The process for establishing such relationships and extracting value from the volume of communications, however, still has much room for improvement.

Not surprisingly, fellow Brightkiters and Twitterers are just like you and I. Some of them have higher online profiles and some have tantalisingly captivating day jobs, however, most of the time we say similar things. We haven’t yet evolved our communication etiquette to a point where we no longer feel the need to express the little idiosynchrasies of our daily lives as we may normally do with our families and co-workers. The result is a universe of noise that is so overwhelmingly diverse and expanding that it is hard to locate the right people or discussions in the first place (proverbial needle in a haystack).

I don’t really care for seeing the meal you digested before the big event. This behaviour must stop!!

So how do we still benefit from the simplicity and immediacy of real-time services such as these but ensure we are able to efficiently locate the people and information we are seeking?

It’s simply called focus.

It seems obvious but how many open social (pardon the pun) networks like Twtter, Friendfeed, Brightkite etc. apply any form of control to encourage focused discussions or allow participants to be linked into some form of logical group by association, therefore allowing me to find and follow them a little easier? Currently all of these start-up companies have a need to build the largest online user base (mass-market) possible which means it may not in their best interest to risk fragmenting their community structure.

Twitter’s recent acquisition of summize.com demonstrates that people see value in being able to identify interesting people and their discussions from within the amorphous Twitterverse. Brightkite is attempting to do similar by being able to search for conversations based upon keywords. Recent informal use of #hashtags to label messages, e.g. #supernova08, is a step in the right direction but it is the user base creating these as opposed to the services leading their adoption. All of these, however, appear to be band-aid approaches. To do the job properly you need to frame a discussion before it begins.

Current search functions on services like Brightkite are primitive and they don’t make grouping discussions into topics easy (or arguably possible) at all.

What then could be a winning formula?

I’d suggest a hybrid of Brightkite, LinkedIN and our good old friend the threaded-discussion forum. The Brightkite social network brings the immediacy and location-relevance that engages people online in the first instance. Arguably it’s a version 2.0 of a now tired looking Twitter. LinkedIN-style features would move the focus to building “groups” and having people interested in similar things joining up (with suggestions presented to me based upon where I live and others in my network) as opposed to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Threaded discussions would then provide focus to the group discussions so that we can avoid being subjected to viewing the inputs of your next amenity output. It would also allow services to recommend other groups and people based upon the threads I contribute to.

If anyone would like to receive an invite to try out Brightkite in order to see the potential and to compare the complementary functions in LinkedIN, send me a message and I will pass one on.

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July 9, 2008

Mobile and home phone convergence reaches AsiaPac

Posted in Articles tagged , , , , , , , at 7:50 pm by siddey

Seeker Wireless‘ General Manager of Sales & Business Development, Andrew Grill, contacted me this week to let me know that the UK based Aussie outfit has successfully deployed their proprietary sim-based mobile location service technology through Vodafone New Zealand. Called “home zone” in Europe but re-branded “local zone” in the home of the world’s 2nd best rugby team, the service effectively turns your mobile phone into your land phone whilst you are physically located within a certain radius of your home.

Customers will be charged the same rates as they would via their land line. It’s a great service and one that further reduces any residual dependence upon using the landline phones of old.

For more information, Vodaphone NZ have a press release on their site.

July 1, 2008

The race for mobile OS supremacy is on!

Posted in Articles tagged , , , , , , , at 9:36 pm by siddey

The mobile world is moving faster than ever. Less than two weeks after publishing my assessment that the primary barriers to widespread LBS adoption are being overcome, Nokia have added spring to their steps by doing exactly what I had hoped. They’ve acknowledged that they intend to fully acquire UK mobile OS vendor Symbian and will make the OS freely available to their partners in direct competition to the iPhone and Google’s upcoming Android.

This three horse race is going to be interesting. As I’ve said before, Nokia have been caught sleeping and it will still take some effort to move the Symbian derivatives currently on the market back into a unified platform. Whether the work required to do this and to release new handsets will happen fast enough to maintain developer interest is the new question.

I’ll have to re-consider my bets for the race now. Having previously put Nokia last out of the three, I’d say they’ve moved up into second spot with Apple still ahead by a few lengths.

June 20, 2008

A new era dawns for mobile location based services

Posted in Articles tagged , , , , , , at 4:30 pm by siddey

As a follow-up to my post exploring the importance of standard approaches to identifying information relevance and the resulting contribution that will make to fully realising the potential from location based services, I think it’s appropriate to also take a bird’s eye view of where we are at with respect to the underlying consumer-based technology platforms needed to finally break into the mainstream.

For me, the WOW factor associated with geoservices (in delivering significant business and personal gains), will really kick in when you’re able to produce and consume location tagged information on the road, seemlessly.

Current obstacles

The main inhibitors to widespread consumer adoption to-date have been;

i.) H/w platform diversity (way too many mobile devices and OS’s),

ii.) Telco walled-gardens and poor infrastructure (preventing easy and reliable access to device information like Cell-ID, Signal strength and GPS),

iii.) The related lack of end-user (business and consumer) saturation in any one market or network and

iv.) a low adoption rate in terms of standard APIs for exchanging geo-data between web services.

The good news

The good news is that the proverbial ducks now seem to be lining up (we’re seeing positive moves in both the device and API arenas) and I believe it’s now only a matter of 6 to 12-months before things will snowball.

The winners?

We should see more existing online services make their geocoded libraries of information more freely available outside of their domain and we should start to see some dominant mobile device platforms emerge. I hold my hopes up for both Google’s Android (as a common developer platform) and the Apple iPhone (as a common developer platform and h/w device) cracking the market saturation problem one way or another.

The losers?

Nokia has a chance but they’re still way too focused on variety and fashion, not platform standardisation although they’re slowly realising that they need to centralise more multi-device developer support into a single developer environment in order to attract more attention.

It’s just a question of which one will provide the most compelling location based development options first.

Networking considerations

It’s still clearly a three horse race for now and with the slow growth of Wimax wireless networks over the coming months, we should finally see the final piece of the puzzle solved and the death of the Telco walled-gardens. The benefit of alternate wide-spread wireless networks is that consumers can bypass the telcos altogether and go back to relying upon the ISPs they’ve been dealing with for their Internet access for years. With the breakdown of the gardens (the digital-era equivalent to the Berlin Wall), many niche location based services / companies will become popular as they can now be guaranteed of direct consumer access.  Note that current Wifi networks are just not up to scratch for supporting LBS because they lack roaming capabilities, which the Wimax IEEE 802.16e standard comes with out of the box.

Watch what happens to RIM and their Blackberry strategy when the new 3G iPhone with GPS is released! 🙂 I think we may quickly see a fourth late runner come to the party. 🙂 I know there is a GPS enabled Blackberry, however, their platform is not currently as open to the general developer community as will be the Android and iPhone platforms.

So, in all, yes we’re getting there and I’m as excited as hopefully you all are that it’s finally coming together. The more people focus on common platforms and standards, the sooner it will come.

June 18, 2008

Defining information relevance for location based services – part 1

Posted in Articles tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:12 pm by siddey

Online location based services have a potential that we will not see fully realised until they can effortlessly present a highly structured pool of data relating to people, places and things. The next frontier of LBS will be the tools and standards supporting and identifying all of the metadata that should be used to define what geocoded information is relevant to you.

Beyond simply associating a lat/long address with a text-field description, relevant location based information requires us to examine more deeply the links that should exist between data and the possible uses of it.

As we move closer to seeing a more tightly knit but broadly aggregated online world, information service providers will be able to assist us to filter out much of the noise and distractions that exist right now (which is ever increasing as more feeds start spewing forth from social services like twitter, friendfreed, brightkite etc.)

I should clarify that at this point, I’m not talking solely about filtering information coming from people’s activity feeds. That’s certainly one requirement and you can watch a very interesting video at Chris Messina’s blog in which he discusses elements of this as they relate to social network interoperability. Chris’ DiSo project, among other objectives, is attempting to provide open standards for enabling the aggregation, filtering and migration of information across social networks.

My primary focus, however, relates to making sense of knowledge that has been attached to physical world objects (people and things). After all, that’s what location based services are all about. At this point in the evolution of the industry it’s still mainly about people and not so much the “things”. Maybe that’s because it’s human nature to think of ourselves first and the rest of the planet later. 😉 A good by-product to come out of any of the numerous social network data portability initiatives would be creating a simple means to be able to categorise, aggregate and attach feed data to real world objects.

Geo-tagging is already a very popular activity and thousands of people are currently labelling things via Google Earth / maps, Yahoo! maps etc. There are also a huge range of mash-ups to choose from, that mostly attempt to extract value from some of the already available geocoded data by making it searchable. If you haven’t yet played with these sorts of services, to help you visualise the potential, consider a flight-simulator view of the world where what you see before you is overlayed with an all-you-can-eat filterable view of geocoded information.

If you’re still not with me – take a look at this video from the guys at enkin.net. They’ve written a next generation LBS mobile application prototype that using the camera on your phone, overlays digital information on top of the real-world objects that you’re seeing on the screen. One word – wow!

Now, back to the context. Without some control and standards it becomes hard to filter out the gold from the mud and it also still means you need to span multiple services to manually interpret and aggregate everything that may be of relevance to the person or thing you’re researching.

So let’s take a look at what I call the “three pillars” model of LBS to better understand the pre-requisites for enabling the next generation of LBS.

The “three pillars” of LBS information relevance

The first pillar (timing and focus) relates to establishing whether we are interested in real-time or event-based geocoded information (timing) relating to people and things (focus). As an example consider;

i. Tell me who/what is around me (real-time) OR ii. Tell me who/what will be around me (event based)

This is the dominant form current location based services take. It’s kinda cool but not that useful on its own, especially if you want to be able to automatically drill down to explore levels of related information.

The pillars model adds more value over current implementations by suggesting that the secret sauce ties back to being able to tap your ever growing social and business networks by focusing upon filtering time relevant information emanating from people within the networks you wish to tap (and related networks of 2nd and 3rd degree separation). Of course information emanating from these networks still needs to be geocoded and further sub-categorised (one of the other pillars). This objective is aligned with related projects that have been initiated to standardise how people’s event/activity information is structured across the multiple social networks they are using (see this article from Chris Messina for more info). Here though we’re talking more than just activities as events in time – we want to interpret the intent and outcome of these as they relate to the location of a person or thing that we are interested in.

As an example, what if I told a service that I was heading to Vegas to see the Consumer Electronics Show and was keen to meet up with some people with similar professional interests to me. How could I tackle this automatically? Let’s take a look.

1. Firstly, I’m heading to a known location at a known future time, so I should be able to search my network and their networks for people whom have also indicate that they’re heading over also.

2. Secondly, I’ve got an open, well categorised profile (let’s pretend ok) and it’s therefore a no-brainer to select others travelling there with similar interests or background.

3. Finally, I receive my list along with their profiles and figure out who I’d like to send a direct message to. From there, if all worked out well, we’d attach notification of our plans to meet as tag information on the CES venue (yes, I mean the actual building) so that others will be able to see that we’re heading along when they query for event and attendee information attached to the venue (effectively a reverse look-up of the results of my own actions).

Dopplr is a service that covers one side of this equation (stating destinations for travellers) but to really get the value, we need to be able to add more qualifying information. In this instance the particular interests of the people would be relevant, not just that they’re travelling to the same destination. Besides, Dopplr is attempting to build a business out of what really should be a simple web service. Maybe if they opened up to us via an API!? 😉 By now you should be seeing the obvious need to link the functionality of currently disparate services to achieve the end game.

As another example, imagine if I Twittered the following, “@siddey needs a cheap hotel room within 100m of 101 Collins street, Melbourne, tonight”.

The service would interpret the parts of the whole as;

1. “needs a” – I’m looking for

2. “cheap hotel room” – cheap accommodation

3. “within 100m of” – defined geographical scope for search

4. “101 Collins street, Melbourne” – in the centre of Melbourne.

5. “tonight” – The timing, of course!

So the plan would be to search for hotels in the selected radius, identify if there are any associated discounts and/or general vacancies (through relating “cheap” as meaning discount/special etc.) available for tonight and narrow the search down to a handful of results. I’d then select the Hotel and auto-magically make a booking via an appropriately secure method (e-wallet anyone? :)). All achieved through a single sentence….wow. Maybe one day it would also recognise that in my roaming profile I’ve indicated that I’m a member of a particular chain’s frequent traveller club (by including my club id# etc.) and would pass my details automatically to the hotel to make a booking.

Although we see some of this dissection taking place in the current generation of location based services, the categories of information that both people, events and the real world have been tagged with are not yet standardised and nor are those focusing on location data particularly mature in terms of the data they capture and how they tag it (e.g. Brightkite). They are also arguably lacking granularity and exist as a myriad of discrete services out there with no single data dictionary to enable meaningful association of my vocabulary with the metadata fields currently used to store geo-coded information (although Mapufacture is certainly heading in this direction by taking a bottom-up approach). Other options would include use of specific Microformats.

Whether it be buildings, architecture, landmarks or other real-world objects to which we would like to link data stored in the vast array of existing online social networks and databases, there is a clear need to control our approach to associating physical and digital information across multiple sources using agreed standards.

The 2nd and arguably most complex piece of the relevance puzzle (the reason pillar) is intended to answer the question – Why should certain geocoded information be more relevant to you than the rest?

It’s primarily focused on the provision of real-time, situational information and intends to make decisions on relevancy for you based upon an assessment of your aggregated profile information. This would include a much deeper record of your interests, ideally populated automatically over time just by travelling, reading and conversing the way you currently would in the web world. Patterns would evolve over time and these patterns would result in narrowing down the information categories that are relevant to you based upon your current location and what it is that you’re doing (again we see a dependency upon interpreting events / activities).

The 3rd and final pillar in the model (geo-semantics) is the glue that binds it all and represents the application of semantic web principles to the real world. Included in this layer are the events I mentioned earlier that are being reported within our network of social and business contacts. After all, what use is semantically tagged online information in a location based context if we do not understand when and where information should be attached? The key here is to define standard metadata for real-world things that then allows us to more easily automate associating digital data with them. For inspiration, look back at the earlier example I gave above from mapufacture.com and try to think of ways in which the association of information and location could be automated instead of having to manually do this via their site. This should help you visualise what I mean by the obvious need to have a means to automatically detect that certain digital information applies to a real-world thing.

So with all of this in mind, we can see almost limitless possibilities for providing more readily available and relevant, location based information.

In parting, imagine that you’re an entrepreneur wanting to carry out market research for a new product and want to firstly identify and monitor geographic hotspots in which people are talking about your competitors. By researching the market demographics of the area and identifying the best areas and social networks (and people) to break into in order to pitch / sell would be extremely effective (although some might argue a tad intrusive but hey, it’s just an example).

Maybe you work in financial services and are travelling into “The Valley” to look for investment opportunities, therefore, you want to find out which are the key people and businesses operating in that space. You could find out the topics of discussion amongst the employees or their customers and prime yourself so that you can carry out due diligence from the perspective of market appeal, not just financials.

Perhaps you want to know the history behind the Sydney Opera House as it relates to your study of architectural design and ask questions of the various networks of people that have some form of relationship with that building / site.

Maybe you’re on holiday in Italy (yes, please) and whilst travelling on location you want the service to present to you all of the available audio tours, tours, restaurants and maps that your network of networks have also used and rated well and filter recommendations based upon those with similar tastes, travel plans and/or even by sub-category of tour. You may even want to narrow the criteria based upon the fact that you’ve only got 5 hours to spare in Milan, so time is previous and you need to consider how long all of this will take.

These are but a few of the complex queries that could be achieved through a single service with the appropriately deep definition of geo-coded information.

I do not have all the answers but I will be further exploring some of the dependencies I allude to above in future posts. Maybe a conceptual prototype will come following that.

May 14, 2008

Aussie mapmates service has no platform to stand on

Posted in Articles tagged , , , , at 3:55 pm by siddey

Michael Robson’s new Australian based venture, mapmates, is by no means travelling uncharted waters. It is essentially another friendfinder application to add to the crowded pool, however, this time around it carries an explicit service charge in addition to applicable carrier data fees. Attempting to charge for such a basic service is a big ask, especially when we’re still currently sore from being financially milked by Telcos when it comes to mobile data charges.

I hate to bag an Australian service, purely because of my bias against always hearing about US based services but I think if Robson is really going to make it a success he should be thinking more in terms of platforms and not services. Friendfinding does not equate to something people would necessarily explicitly pay for and I think that’s evident from the wreckage left by other similar free services.

Adding this as one offering amongst many on a mapmates platform would make more sense. Opening it up to other developers to use your location code and deliver their own widgets is even more compelling. In the meantime, without a broader offer, will people really pay AU$25 for 2000 “finds”?

Time will tell but I don’t believe so.

To bring mapmates in league with our US counterparts, we need to focus more on building platforms and marketing them like hell. The first to really be able to reach critical mass in a geographical locale, in terms of downloads, will have created a mobile distribution channel worth something. Until we have some proof that Nokia or perhaps even the upcoming Google Android OS will give LBS developers out there something to work with that takes the pain associated with porting across multiple mobile platforms away, he who sells / promotes theirs the hardest could just prevail.

A platform that I think has a lot of potential and that has been bubbling away for about a year is Che Metcalfe’s Adelaide based podmo.com. Give them a look-see! They’re evolving a free mobile-based communications infrastructure with an interesting twist and their parent company Kukan Studio is a mobile games developer that specialises in porting mobile applications.

Maybe this is a mapmatch made in mapmate heaven?

May 6, 2008

Why location is the new black for social networks

Posted in Articles tagged at 9:06 pm by siddey

Chris Messina gets it. I mean, he REALLY gets it!

It’s not about how many friends, contacts or distant relatives you have linked on your social network account. It’s about knowing who lives where and contacting people based upon where they live / work / play etc.

It’s not about who is meeting who in The Valley. It’s about who is meeting who in your town and joining in on the conversation.

It’s not about using your RSS reader to aggregate feeds from a sea of news sites to find out what’s going on. It’s about having all the content relevant to your location, gift wrapped and presented to you.
It’s about your ultimate social service, giving you all of the above without you needing to ask in the one online experience (whether that be a single service or a smooth aggregation of multiple services). 

Ubiquitous support for location awareness within websites, services and networks or whatever you choose to spend your online time interacting with is where it’s heading. Opening up new opportunities to interact more with your immediate locale or any locale that YOU CHOOSE is Web 3.0 (hehe – had to throw in a corny term so that maybe it gains some meaning).

Chris’ article quite eloquently states that online providers must get better at integrating with one another and geo-tagging their content / services / ads etc.

April 18, 2008

Google’s Android developer competition uncovers serious talent

Posted in Articles tagged at 12:55 pm by siddey

I’ll let this video speak for itself. Give it a few minutes and then let me know if you’re not also blown away by what the guys from enkin.net have managed to prototype. It’s a first look into the next generation of location based services, one that blurs the line between the online world and our real world.

Simply brilliant. I want it.

March 18, 2008

Perth residents take Google Transit for a ride

Posted in Articles tagged , , , , , at 12:13 pm by siddey

Jetsetting into Sydney today for their Australian media conference, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced that the online giant’s first deployment of Google Transit in the southern-hemisphere will be in Perth, Western Australia. Perth’s Transperth transit authority has been a leader in Australian public service LBS for a few years now, with their Journey Planner service able to accurately schedule journeys including bus/train/ferry numbers, accurate running times and maps. With a relatively mature level of GIS permeating throughout the Western Australian Government’s infrastructure, no doubt Google has found it a straightforward process to adapt Transperth’s services to their own.

Of course, regular readers will be aware that Perth is my hometown, so it’s especially pleasing to see more LBS action taking place there than on the east coast of Australia. 🙂

March 4, 2008

Seven Network plays to win in the Australian mobile TV and Internet space

Posted in Articles at 5:22 pm by siddey

For those not following the trials and tribulations of Unwired Australia, the listed ASX wireless internet provider that holds the rights to the Wimax spectrum here, you would have missed the fact that the end of 2007 saw them taken over by listed Australian media cash-box, Seven Network Limited (ASX:SEV). In case you’re wondering why a predominantly media based group would want to buy a wireless Internet Service Provider, here’s a little bit of background on Seven to help fill in the gaps.

1. Seven Network used to be in the cable television arena until their sports network C7 was an unceremonious financial flop back in 2005 due to a number of mitigating circumstances, most of which were the subject of a long-running anti-competitive based legal case against their primary competitor at the time.

2. Foxtel is the current dominant cable TV provider in Australia (yep – that’s right, Seven’s nemesis!), comprising part ownership from – Telstra, Newscorp and Consolidated Media Holdings.

2. Seven Network recently sold around a half-share of their media assets to US based investment group KKR and are now armed with $2.5b cash.

3. They’ve invested heavily to-date in expanding their Internet asset portfolio (content providers, strategic partnerships, e.g. Yahoo!7 ) including technology company Engin which currently provides cable internet-based voip services but is rapidly appearing as becoming the primary vehicle by which Seven will deliver Tivo and IPTV capabilities in the near-term.

4. What do you do when the dominant cable TV player also has a majority holding from the dominant player in Australia’s cable, wireless internet and mobile phone market?

Answer: You buy your own, almost profitable wireless internet provider, expand their network and use the Wimax spectrum to trounce your competitors with subsidised wireless IPTV and roaming mobile Internet services.

Revenge is sweet, so they say. 🙂

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