Saturday, July 15, 2006

GPS Wireless Conference 2006

_Early in March I attended the 10th annual GPS Wireless Conference in San Francisco. More than 200 mobile information professionals from the largest automobile manufacturers, wireless carriers, mobile electronics vendors, homeland defense and computer companies met for this two day conference. The conference covered topics ranging from mobile markets, wireless location services and mobile resource management, to the automobile as a mobile information platform.

A good question to pose is whether “GPS Wireless” is an appropriate name for the 2007 conference. In the last several years we have seen an explosion of consumer GPS products: telematics systems, LBS applications on cell phones, GPS-enabled PDAs, and novel GPS products such as pet finders have flooded the marketplace, with new products and applications announced almost daily. Likewise, public awareness of the potential utility of GPS has increased. The entrance of both Microsoft and Google into the GPS and mapping market has helped accelerate consumer understanding and adoption of location technology. This is also causing a major demand among users of LBS technology to “show what is around me.” In a word, GPS is the generally accepted term used by consumers to describe all location-enabled products and applications.

What’s interesting is that GPS is not even the position-enabling (or location-enabling) technology inside many of these new location-aware applications that are getting a lot of traction these days. Moreover, Google and the other online mapping consumer websites are a disruptive technology for GPS because they don’t require the use of GPS. Users can self-provision by entering a street intersection. Alternatively, users may select an application like Google Local or Microsoft Live Local, which uses Wi-Fi for location sensing to the nearest access point.

So what would be a good name, one that would encompass all possible location-enabling technologies? Names like ubiquitous / pervasive / sentient computing are already common among computer and AI scientists. Many of you may recall that OGC changed its name from “GIS” to “Geospatial” to reflect its work with location services, sensor networks and other areas in need of location-enabling technology. Just as market forces have dictated the broadening of the scope of work of the OGC (which reinforced the recognition that OGC must exist within the larger IT and enterprise frameworks, and that there are many applications other than "just GIS" which create and use content with a location element), will market forces also require a name change for “GPS”?

Okay, back to what’s important in 2006.

Marketplace Optimism and Reality in 2006
Device content infrastructure is starting to have location embedded in it. Will this be the impetus for the location-awareness revolution? Regardless, the optimism for LBS is greater than ever. Just look at TeleNav raising $30 million and Networks In Motion closing $10 million. Carriers are finally looking beyond E911 compliance and developing infrastructure to support LBS. Nextel (now Sprint Nextel) led the way with ViaMoto several years ago and Verizon just introduced VZ Navigator. Among data users of the Sprint Nextel network, 34% expressed an interest in advanced GPS applications. So, the good news is that progress is being made and LBS activity is increasing. Nonetheless, the revenue for wireless carriers from LBS services will be in the area of $167 million in 2006, (not billions!). The reality is that LBS partner programs, business models, sales and marketing strategies are still evolving.

Another important reality is that LBS application uses, requirements and customer expectations are still not understood. Also, a representative from MapQuest pointed out that consumers don’t see mapping as a lifestyle choice (most adoption stops at ring tones and games). MapQuest is currently working on transitioning 47 million captive users from PC to mobile devices, where users don’t have to print directions, but send them to their phones using a link at the top of the website page. There is no doubt that such developments will promote mapping and LBS to the mass market.

The optimism in 2006 for LBS also comes from better map data in terms of accuracy (both geometric and temporal) and coverage. Tele Atlas gave an update on their newest Mobile Mapping System (MMS) technology, acquired from GeoInvent (I consulted for GeoInvent), enabling real-time database updates from the road. The MMS technology capabilities feature 360 degree visibility for increased quality, detail and greater accuracy. Tele Atlas takes advantage of this technology, especially in cases where no sources of data are available to meet their specifications, which is when they go directly into the field.

The other reality in 2006 is that privacy, indoor coverage and market awareness are still the pending issues. Many consumers are dissatisfied with the low position accuracy their GPS devices provide when in cities (not to mention indoors). A truly useful service should tell them where they are - whether they're outside or inside a building. The LBS industry has been pondering the reasons for slow LBS adoption in the marketplace. How about this reason - LBS fails because it does not work where people are: indoors and in cities. GPS is great, but not for many of the end-user/consumer-facing and 'local' applications that will prove to be the backbone of the LBS market.

Some attendees did inquire about the convergence of GPS + WLAN + other local positioning technologies for outdoor-indoor seamless positioning capabilities. The key benefit of using WLAN over GPS, besides better accuracy in cities and indoors, is that WLAN positioning technologies avoid the location data control and integration issues with carriers and mobile handsets, respectively. One presenter, from Rosum Corporation, was an eye-opener, announcing the availability of a chip that integrators could incorporate into devices, which highlighted their advancement towards market readiness. It still may be a while before we see products with “Rosum inside,” but it is a something to be looking into as it may impact innovation and development within the industry and further the adoption of location-enabling technologies for outdoor and indoor needs

A-GPS was clearly the dominant positioning technology at this year’s conference. Which positioning technologies will dominate in 2007? A-GPS, WLAN, RFID, TV or others?

Who’s your competitor in 2006?
The expert panel pointed out that the biggest competitors remain Microsoft and Google. Attendees were advised to establish partner programs, business models, and sales and marketing strategies with the top guns.

What would you change for 2007?
During one session attendees were asked, “What would be the thing that you would like to change, so it takes off next year?” Replies ranged from GUIs, to system engineering, to marketing, to interoperability.