Google makes bid to dominate location by sending it into the cloud

googleIt’s not as if Google hasn’t been lining up its mobile/location-based ducks in a row for some time now. From the Android OS to Google Maps to the integration of local results into its core search engine results, Google has been making the shift from having mobile rather than desktop access sit at the very center of its business for some time now. At the Google I/O developer conference this week, the search giant released a series of APIs that could serve as the engine that shifts its location ambitions into overdrive. At the center of its efforts is a new API for its Latitude service that lets users share and developers access information about a user’s location.

From the Google blog:

Since launching Latitude, our team has been talking about all the cool things you could do with your continuously updated Latitude location. While we’ve built some of our ideas, there are simply too many exciting ones for us to do alone. Instead, we wanted to let you safely share your Latitude location with third parties who could create apps that do more with your location. Developers could, for example, build apps or services for:

* Thermostats that turn on and off automatically when you’re driving towards or away from home.
* Traffic that send alerts if there’s heavy traffic ahead of you or on a route you usually take based on your location history
* Your credit card accounts to alert you of potential fraud when a purchase is made far from where you actually are.
* Photo albums so your vacation photos appear on a map at all the places you visited based on your location history.

karpinskiiconConnected Planet’s take,
Rich Karpinski:

We’ve been talking more and more lately about exactly where telecom service providers should be playing in the API game (see: “‘Toy’ apps vs ‘real’ apps,” for instance). Location-based intelligence is certainly at the center of that opportunity, which should make Google’s strong play here all the more disconcerting for service providers. One of the more interesting elements of Google’s Latitude API play is that the data the API exposes isn’t on the user device at all, but rather sent up into the cloud. That makes a user’s location much more accessible for apps running not only on a user’s phone but really any and everywhere — which explains the Google app example that takes your location and uses it to manage devices in your home. Latitude as a service hasn’t been widely used up to now; check-in services like Foursquare have really garnered the lion’s share of location attention. But that could change quickly.

It’s notable that a pure location API wasn’t the only location-oriented resource that Google exposed yesterday. In a second announcement, it opened up access to its Nearby Places database, giving developers access to its tremendous store of information about various locations. Armed with both information about a user’s location as well as all the places, businesses and landmarks nearby, developers will have the tools at their disposal to build extremely useful — and “monetizable” — location-based apps that can run on phones, PCs and even TVs, all without any involvement (aside from raw data connectivity) from their mobile operator. All of this comes as no surprise from Google. It’s been lining up and telegraphing these steps for some time.

So how can mobile operators respond? Do they have any leverage to be part of this very powerful location-based ecosystem Google is building? Yes they do — and it comes from Google’s failure to establish an independent, online-only channel for distributing its own Nexus One Android device, a strategy it announced it was ending this week. If Google wants to distribute Android devices through telco channels (and its market share is up to 10% of the smartphone market, thanks to partnerships with Verizon, T-Mobile and other operators), it needs to partner with operators on location services, not just route around them. The time to put that negotiating chip on the table is now, as the mobile and location market is just starting to come into focus.

As I was wrapping up this post, a press release from consultancy Ovum hit my inbox about the challenge Google presents telecom operators. I quickly tracked down an online version, in part to share its fitting takeaway: Google is causing ‘fear and paranoia’ in the telecom industry, and telcos must learn to exploit the search and technology giant rather than be exploited. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

That’s our take on this. Let us know what you think in the comments section below:

2 Responses to “Google makes bid to dominate location by sending it into the cloud”

  1. RBarnes says:

    Here’s my take: Your evaluation of “how mobile operators can respond” is completely off base. By focusing on Google, you’re missing the forest for the one big tree. The LBS marketplace is much bigger than Google now, encompassing many mobile applications on multiple platforms (Android, iPhone, Blackberry, Symbian, et al.) an addition to the location-based web apps that are enabled by the W3C Geolocation API. In the face of this diversity, mobile operators have no hope of “exploiting” or extorting payment from all of these apps — as long as the devices on their network can access their location (as the increasingly can without relying on the telco), and if the network provides an IP connection, then the user can use whatever location-based services he wants. (See, e.g., a recent presentation [1] in the context of emergency services) The whole point of the Internet is that applications “route over” (not “route around”) the access network.

    If telcos want application providers to partner with them, they will need to demonstrate some value for LBS beyond simply carrying IP packets. And there is an obvious way to do this: Provide location. One of the major limiting factors for LBS right now is the lack of a good network-based location solution (as opposed to GPS). The carriers are in an excellent position to provide such a service, based on information that’s already in their network management systems. All the carriers need to do is provide a standard interface to this valuable information (see the Internet standards in [2][3]) and the clients will come.

    Finally, under the heading of “nothing new under the sun”: This new service is basically the same as the Yahoo! Fire Eagle service, with the addition of location history, and actually provides applications with about the same capabilities as the APIs that they already have access to (native device APIs and the W3C Geolocation API). Given that these location sources already have significant mind-share, it’s not at all clear that there’s any real incentive for developers to make use of the Latitude APIs. This point just underscores the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture of location and not getting distracted by the big “G”.


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