Tuesday, 28 June 2011

LBS no longer just a delicious pie in the sky

Today, when I hear about people talk about how location is the hot new mobile/social marketing/PR 'thing', I can't help but wonder what things would be like if I was doing my thesis now, as opposed to six years ago when I struggled to explain my research topic - Location-Based Services or LBS in the context of tourism - to most people.

Back then, I spoke to a few groups of 'advanced' or independent travellers (i.e. your typical backpacker) and asked what they thought about the idea of using location-based mobile services as part of their travel experience. It seemed they were quite keen as long as the services were reliable, easy to use, had trustworthy content, didn't invade their privacy, spam them with too much info, or were too costly. Funnily enough, they are probably still the pertinent issues of today.

Of course, LBS seemed especially like a 'pie in the sky' six years ago when there were no smartphones with large touchscreen interfaces and built-in GPS. In comparison, the clunky mobile phones of old were simply incapable of delivering an intuitive and satisfying user experience when it came to location. Now, the main problem is connectivity, particularly for travellers. Mention 'data roaming' to most smartphone users and they probably have a horror story of discovering bills running into the hundreds or thousands upon their return. And if you're only going somewhere for a week or two, you're hardly going to bother buying a local SIM. Even then, will local telcos have reasonable prepay data offerings?

An alternative connectivity option is WiFi, which is going great in cities like Hong Kong, but NZ has yet to offer much on this front. There are some promising signs this may change soon, particularly in time for the Rugby World Cup, but that's hardly a solution for the non-urban or even suburban areas that visitors will ultimately end up in. Ubiquitous WiFi or even mobile network coverage is simply unfeasible for cities or countries as sprawled out as Auckland or NZ.

When travelling, the one thing that will keep working on your smartphone regardless of mobile data or WiFi coverage is the built-in GPS. Any apps reliant on this to the exclusion of network connectivity would mean having to have pre-downloaded, fully self-contained content within the device. Google already have a few of these on offer, which is a pretty good start. Of course, having your phone basically ping satellites chews through the battery rather quickly, and you wouldn't want to be stranded somewhere with no knowledge of how to get out!

All potential pitfalls and negativity aside, things are certainly looking a lot brighter for LBS than they were six years ago, and there are already some amazing applications out there. People are always talking about foursquare, but until more firms in NZ take ownership of their foursquare place, it's not going to penetrate the mass market or be able to offer real value to users. Facebook places has a huge leg up already in that regard, and it'll be interesting to see if companies are more likely to want to 'own' this. This is all very well and good for businesses like Burgerfuel, but for tourism LBS apps someone else may have to take responsibility for public or natural attractions with no business driver.

Given many small (tourism) businesses may not necessarily even be online yet, asking them to have a LBS app may be a bit of a stretch. But definitely not as much of a stretch as it would have been six years ago! Bring on better, cheaper connectivity along with longer battery lives for smartphones, and we might just get there within the next six years...

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