Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Navizon - The Ultimate Personal Navigation Companion?

The Navizon application is a mobile solution for those who suffer from GPS signal loss problems. This article looks at how Navizon works from both a technical and business model perspective. And right up front, I should let you know that I'm a fan.

Navizon provides consistent positioning information of 20-40m. As soon as a GPS signal drops out, Navizon makes use of Wi-Fi and/or cell tower triangulation (a wireless infrastructure that is dense in cities) to provide a continuous data feed. Navizon is a complementary as well as alternative positioning technology to GPS, especially in cases where GPS doesn't work, such as in cities or indoors. Navizon can also act as the virtual GPS for applications that are dependent on GPS, like TomTom, by leveraging Wi-Fi and cell tower triangulation.

Wi-Fi access points and cell towers give off a signal, just like a GPS satellite. Each Wi-Fi access point broadcasts a radio signal to announce its presence to devices within a range of approximately 100m. This signal incorporates a unique network address code that identifies the access point, which it transmits whenever it is on. Even if the signal is too weak for a mobile device to connect to, the device can still get the signal ID, which is stored in the Navizon's Network Database (NND). The signal ID is associated with map coordinates.

Innovation #1: Building the Wireless Coverage Map by Giving Rewards to the User

Navizon's innovation arises from the fact that its wireless coverage map is both created and constantly enhanced by the users themselves. This happens automatically without a user's intervention. Once installed on the user's device, the Navizon application automatically maps the local wireless landscape by calculating specific locations for all base stations in the area.

The catch is that only users with a GPS-enabled device are able to do the "war-driving" (wireless surveying). When GPS signals are available, the Navizon software uses them to construct a map of the wireless landscape composed of Wi-Fi access points and cell tower base stations. The NND is constructed by coordinating GPS data with signal triangulation of nearby base stations. Again, this is done without any effort by the users - all the users need to do is use Navizon for their individual purposes and sync once in a while with the NND server.

The Navizon Network community is growing rapidly, providing a critical mass of users contributing to the wide-area wireless coverage. Nevertheless, Cyril Houri of Mexens Technology (maker of Navizon) says that "like in every community, there are the people who do the work and others who benefit from it." For this reason, Navizon has introduced a new licensing model. Those users who don't contribute any data will have to pay $19.99 to use Navizon. The interesting part here is that the revenues earned from this program will be used to reward the users who do contribute to the wireless coverage map. Users who earn 10,000 points will be rewarded with $19.99 to their PayPal accounts. Users get 2 points for each Wi-Fi access point and 10 points for every cell tower mapped.

The NAVIZON Reward Program. Used with permission. (Click for larger image)

Users or hobbyists who have already mapped out a wireless area will also be rewarded for their data. This can apply to any user group, such as NYC Wireless, or hobbyists, like Christopher Schmidt of GSMloc.org. GSMloc has already mapped out 10197 cells (251224 points) for cell towers. There are also huge Wi-Fi access point repositories like WIGLE.net, which accounts for 7 million locations of access points. This reward system is especially attractive to fleets. Imagine each taxi driver driving around a city mapping the wireless coverage just by using the Navizon software on his GPS-enabled mobile device.

Unlike Skyhook Wireless, Navizon does not require field fleets equipped with GPS receivers and Wi-Fi scanners to do the "war-driving," which could imply higher costs. Also, map content companies like NAVTEQ or Tele Atlas or others might get into the business of mapping Wi-Fi access points or cell tower base stations as a point-of-interest (POI) category.

One perceived drawback of Wigle.net has been that there is no quality control with such user-contributed (open source) Wi-Fi war-driving. According to Jed Rice of Skyhook, "When you start with data that is collected using dozens of different methods by hundreds of different contributors who are left to randomly define their own collection process, you can't possibly build a reliable system or application on top of it. Organizations like Place Lab and Microsoft's Locate Me have discovered it the hard way - while it may work some of the times in some of the places and be 'good enough,' you can't then expect commercial organizations who are relying on a solution for their own service offering to use it."

It is true that the data in Wigle.net's Wi-Fi AP location repository can be very inaccurate because they will access all sorts of data collected with various hardware. They even access manually generated data which can create big inaccuracies. Navizon "only uses data that has been collected by its proprietary software so it controls how it is being calculated. Navizon also has a calibrating method that makes the data look the same on all devices," according to Houri.

A similar reward system will be introduced for the Navizon API for developers. The Navizon API provides the ability for developers to create customized location applications and solutions. These applications may be consumer focused or enterprise focused. "The API was identified as one of the top priorities for the developer community, so we're pleased to be able to satisfy the needs of the developers and other customers in providing this service," says Houri. The API will make available the positioning engine behind Navizon, allowing other applications to make use of its dynamic geo-positioning network.

Innovation #2: Navizon Developers are Independent of Telecom Operators

Navizon makes widespread LBS adoption more possible than ever - no reliance on telecom carriers or Wi-Fi network operators. There are no connection and operating system license fees; Navizon merely identifies the addresses of the Wi-Fi access points or cell towers without using the networks. Also, there is no carrier approval needed, no testing prior to launch required, no burden in achieving the "right" business model with the carriers, and no sharing of revenues. This way, developers are independent of third party constraints (e.g. buying additional hardware, requiring third party distribution, permission from carriers). And, Navizon is multi-carrier, as it is independent of handsets or network-based positioning technologies.

Concluding Remarks - Impact of Wi-Fi on the Telecom Industry
InStat predicts that shipments of Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones will top 132 million by 2010. "Carriers have been reluctant to offer Wi-Fi-capable handsets for several reasons, but Wi-Fi has spread so fast that carriers will not be able to resist much longer," according to an In-Stat press release. Embracing Wi-Fi is becoming a competitive necessity among carriers; if they don't, other providers will likely lure away customers.

Already, more than 20 handset models have been released, or soon will be, with Wi-Fi connectivity built in. Some of those handsets also incorporate interfaces for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Skype. Carriers are responding by developing services that support voice calls over both cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

According to Insight Corp., Wi-Fi growth will not come at the expense of 2.5G, 3G, or private wireless networks. Wi-Fi's impact on telecommunications revenue, rather, will be multiplicative; creating bigger broadband networking opportunities for all participants.