Mobile LBS Challenges

The SiRF Location 2.0 Summit last week deserves additional mention. It was a well-organized set of panels high in content and low in company marketing spin. One of the big macro themes of the conference was defining measurable benchmarks or challenges that need to be cleared for the broader LBS space to finally reach it's true potential. One area of discussion involved the key challenges still confronting LBS developers today. I wanted to throw out my top 4 list.

(1) Privacy. This is still one of the first hurdles to offering any location-aware service. Everyone knows it but few have it right. It will continue to be an point of strong focus after recent social networking child safety press. I would not be surprised if the majority of proposed LBS apps today are blocked from launch by carrier legal departments (for good reason). As an industry and in partnership, acceptable location privacy standards must be defined, supported and embedded in location access technologies. The CTIA and other wireless leadership groups are working through best practices; it remains to be seen how quickly carriers and vendors adopt these recommended policies.

(2) Location Cost. This continues to be a significant challenge to the launch of high frequency location-aware applications. The easy out is to claim the carrier's are charging too much for access to location information. The likely answer is more complex than that. I believe one of the largest reasons location is so costly today is initial location deployments were motivated by E911 requirements, bringing along a cost structure and complexity of implementation that is not required for the majority of commercial LBS apps. Hopefully, with the growing movement towards user plane and IP location solutions, location information will approach the ubiquity and cost of current DNS services. To date, mobile carriers have selected the same vendor to provide both emergency and commercial LBS infrastructure in general. Carriers separating the procurement of emergency and commercial location is one option that could reduce the cost of commercial location information.

(3) Mobile Device Fragmentation. Anyone that has built a mobile app has struggled to develop for and QA multiple handset form factors, seemingly random J2ME implementation bugs, and the challenges of getting users to download a mobile app. Some carrier environments are better than others (i.e. BREW), however the vast majority of handsets today present extreme challenges for an end user interested in paying for, downloading and running any new app. As a developer, it is a struggle to address a large customer base given the fragmentation of devices by carrier, network technology, vendor, mobile OS, etc. These challenges alone can explain the difference in $ market size of the PC software vs. mobile software industries. This is not a location specific challenge, but the device barrier is multiplied again by the varying levels of location API support from device to device, and carrier to carrier. This will not get better until carriers and device OEMs adopt more consistent and stringent requirements for mobile app runtimes and location API support. Nokia, Apple, soon Google, other smartphone vendors and (the hope of) mobile Linux appear to be targeting simplifying development across their mobile platforms. However, it will take some time to filter down to feature phones, and will continue to be a significant barrier to the broader adoption of LBS apps (or any mobile apps for that matter).

(4) Location Accuracy & Availability. Different location apps require different levels of location accuracy. The prevalence and availability of high accuracy A-GPS has clearly motivated strong interest in navigation services of late. However, there is a wide range of location accuracy when considering A-GPS to Cell-ID. For example, mobile social networking in general can make due with block level location accuracy (intersection of streets, in-between Cell-ID and A-GPS). Many social uses of location are also challenged due to weak GPS signal reception in urban or indoor areas. Availability of different levels of location granularity (and hopefully at different costs) would be a big boon to LBS developers. It is unclear how this will evolve since some of the strongest proponents of mobile LBS are directly vested in deploying A-GPS. LBS developers will need the support of both carriers and vendors to provide a broader set of location accuracies and to ensure availability across all environments.

There are obviously more challenges that the mobile LBS industry is facing. Working to solve these 4 would be a great start.