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Location-Based Services (11/2000)
by Douglas Dixon
The ultimate goal of location-based services is to automatically provide location-based information to your wireless device, allowing you to find interesting places and events, and even alerting you to special retail promotions. But this vision requires not only a convenient and portable mobile wireless device, but the device must also have some sort of automatic positioning hardware with reasonable accuracy.
While the mobile E-911 mandate will encourage wireless carriers to provide positional information by the end of 2001, you do not need to wait to get these services. After all, it's really not too hard to enter a five-digit zip code to identify your general location, and that is quite good enough to access local restaurants or movie theaters.
The concept of accessing location-based services in this way is already familiar to Web users. You can plan trips online, with free access to city guides, rated attractions, entertainment and shopping, hotel and restaurant reviews, travel and lodging reservations, weather predictions, maps, and even door-to-door directions.
These kinds of services are also coming available for mobile phones and handheld PDAs. You can access these services on demand from wireless devices, or, with non-connected handhelds, you can download the information before you go on a trip, and then update it from your hotel room.
A wide range of location-based services are currently available for Web, mobile, and handheld users, including hotel and restaurant information from Fodor's and Frommer's, maps and directions from MapQuest, travel schedules from Travelocity, and weather from the Weather Channel.
You can also download information from these kinds of sources to your Palm or Windows CE handheld, or access it through Web phones, by using information aggregators such as the AvantGo service (www.avantgo.com). A free service, AvantGo offers more than 400 Internet channels formatted for viewing on a handheld screen. You can subscribe to other brand name information services like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Variety. Your channels on your handheld then are updated with the latest news and information each time you connect to the Internet or synchronize with your desktop machine.
Even today you can carry the equivalent of a city guide to streets and places along in your Palm PDA, plus current events listings. One such guide is provided by Vindigo Inc. of New York City (www.vindigo.com), which offers downloadable reference guides for eleven major cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The guides include restaurant, shopping, nightlife, and movie listings, including reviews from the New York Times and Zagat.
To find a movie, you first select the type you are looking for (new, action, comedy, art/foreign, etc.), scroll though a list of movies that type, and make your selection. Vindigo provides a synopsis of the movie, and displays a list of theatres and show times for your choice.
The Vindigo guide is also location-based. For example, if you are looking for a near-by place to eat, you can identify your location by first selecting the area of the city (i.e., East Village or Theater District), and then specify the nearest cross-street. You then choose the type of restaurant that you are looking for (from coffee shops, delis, and eclectic, to a long list of ethnic and nationalities), and Vindigo provides a list of restaurants, sorted by distance from your location. Select a name to see its address, ratings for food, decor, service, and price, and to read a mini-review. If it sounds good, Vindigo will even display walking directions to your destination, including distances and cross-streets.
The Vindigo New York City edition offers some 5,000 listings, but requires only around 500 kilobytes (thousand characters) of storage, so it fits well in an 8 megabyte Palm handheld. But the best part is the price: the Vindigo guides are free downloads, supported by advertising. Vindigo offers businesses the opportunity to do location-based targeting of their advertising. For example, once you specify your location and choose a movie theatre, Vindigo displays an ad from a local restaurant where you can go eat after the show.
While a city guide like Vindigo is great for walking around the major cities that it covers, it does not help with the rest of the country, or for driving in places without a nice regular pattern of cross-streets. For those who plan ahead, you could buy maps and guide books to help plan your trip. Or you could use one of the mapping services on the Web like MapQuest to draw maps at different scales, and even print out driving directions. You can also use services like AvantGo to access maps and directions.
Microsoft bundles the Pocket Streets application with PocketPC handhelds. You can install portions of maps from Microsoft's Streets and Trips and MapPoint desktop applications. All the map information is retained on the handheld, so you can view maps at different levels of detail, display points of interest, and even search for places or addresses.
Mapping companies such as DeLorme (www.delorme.com) now offer their services on the Web, as desktop PC products, and for downloading to handheld devices. The DeLorme product line ranges from consumer products like Street Atlas USA ($40 street price), with detailed U.S. street maps and route directions, to business products like XMap Business ($99), which provides more detail in rural areas and also includes over 100 million business and residential listings and demographic information.
DeLorme has brought maps to handhelds through its Solus software that can download maps and directions to Palm handhelds from the DeLorme desktop products or website. Solus Basic is a free application that can download single maps and directions. Solus Pro ($39) allows multiple maps and directions, and also interfaces to the DeLorme G.P.S. receiver. You can search maps by place name, address, or points of interest, and zoom in at different levels of details.
Finally, the addition of a G.P.S. receiver to your electronic accessories means you can tell where you are, where you are going, and how to get there. For example, the DeLorme Earthmate G.P.S. receiver ($125) attaches to the Palm and works with the mapping software to provide real-time driving directions. You typically mount it on your dashboard (for line of sight to the global positioning satellites) and run a cable to your Palm. You use the software to display a map and set up driving directions to your destination. The software keeps track of where you are relative to the map, and beeps before an upcoming turn, and displays easy-to-read turn arrows. The map even can be adjusted to follow your current direction, or remain in a north-up orientation.
Similar products are being developed by other mapping companies, both established and start-ups, including Rand McNally (www.randmcnally.com). G.P.S. receivers are continuing to shrink in size and cost, and are available for a variety of platforms, including laptops and the Palm-compatible Handspring Visor (www.handspring.com now www.palmone.com/us/products/smartphones).
So, even with today's technology, you can get a lot of help figuring out what is happening around you, at least as long as you already know where you are. A zip code may be a coarse locator, but it is good enough to find information about a suburban area like Princeton. And when in a city, you can use the grid structure of the streets to get a more precise location.
But no matter what the location, the important information is behind the interface, with databases of places of interest, timely updates of current information, and interfaces to retail systems to provide current offers and specials. This is the challenge addressed by companies like GeePS, assembling, updating, and distributing this mass of information in a convenient way suitable to the user's mobile device.