This past May, Marko Balabanovic, Head of Innovation from the UK travel site lastminute [dot] com contacted maperture and requested advice on obtaining inexpensive access to pan-European Cell-ID information. I informed him that no such contiguous EU information service existed and that he would most likely need to ask mobile Operators in each country for access to the data, with the exception of the UK, where I advised he could partner with a few application providers who have aggregated O2, Orange, T-Mobile, and Vodafone Cell-ID data & access for their own application purposes, but who were also willing to provide others middle-man proxy access to their direct Operator MLC hooks via an Internet-facing XML API. For the UK, I suggested several options, but these weren't very helpful for lastminute as they already had a 5-year working history with mobilecommerce, one such UK aggregator and proxy provider of Cell-ID Operator web services. I also suggested he might consider contacting Ericsson since they command 40% leading market share in Europe for Location infrastructure deployments. If anyone could aggregate Cell-ID services from multiple Operators across Europe, surely they had the best shot at tackling the problem. Neither of these suggestions were viable options for lastminute, but Marko thanked me nonetheless for the information & advice and he went about his work.
Three months following our brief exchange, Google announced lastminute as one of their first two developers using the Google Gears-based GeoLocation API, which exposes access to the same user-created Google Cell-ID database powering automated My Location position fix features of Google Maps Mobile. I recently asked Marco about his decision to go with Google for access to this once Operator-only information asset and his learnings are enlightening and worthy of review for any application developer facing the typical challenges of gathering Cell-ID location information to launch place-aware Web and active mobiletop browsing applications... Here's a paraphrased summary of what he had to say:
- Operator Cell-ID Location only works when you're not roaming, and as a travel company serving customers who travel across Europe, country-specific and silo Cell-ID didn't meet the criteria needs of our application. The Google Gears service is roaming-independent and pan-European.
- Operator costs are too high, and when we looked at moving into Europe with this, Google offered a free service in all the countries we provide service
- We were able to bypass typical privacy issues because the Google Gears GeoLocation API doesn't use phone number identities
- Operator Cell-ID feels like a 5-year-ago kind of experience. Because Google has built a browser plug-in, it's makes it really easy for us to create mobile Web pages that use Location as a contextual-enabler for our Web content.
So there you have it. Following Google's announcement and lastminute's decision to switch to an Operator infrastructure-independent approach, mobilecommerce last week announced the launch of the Open Location Alliance, a partnering initiative to expand the geographic extents of their Operator Cell-ID aggregations to the whole of Europe.