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Another Perspective

Location, Location, Location

Geolocation is one of the most influential technologies in the mix that constitutes the mobile internet.  Even when used via a physically static device, such as a desktop PC, geolocation shapes the way users’ apps interact with many information technology services.  Apple and Google are the visible leaders, but Microsoft’s Bing, well aware of the importance of geolocation in server side and client side activities, is as keen as its rivals to provide vital services.  IBM isn’t yet a geolocation powerhouse, but changing circumstances may soon compel it to engage with vigor.

apple map
An Apple Map
Apples map app, a favorite of iPhone users, helps people find
the location of just about anything, such as the San Francisco Apple Store

The popular surface of geolocation technology is a maps app with its database of locations.  Maps apps have a closely related and tightly integrated navigation app.  Apple and Google each have excellent technology supplying these functions.  Microsoft, via its Bing brand for search is also quite good at mapping and navigation.  Bing still provides turn-by-turn directions even as Windows Phone loses relevance; it nevertheless lags Apple and Google when it comes to offering a variety of views and appealing and effective voice prompts for drivers.

Amazon, which, like the three maps providers, has been putting a big effort into speech input and output, doesn’t have a mapping system for the public.  This is a bit surprising, because Amazon clearly understands logistics, with its immense dependence on geolocation, better than just about anyone.  The company offers access to its mapping technology to app developers.  It would not be surprising to learn that Amazon was developing a maps and navigation system for consumers.

A few years back there was an opportunity for other companies like Facebook (or IBM, for that matter) to get a strong position in the maps and nav app game via the buyout of a very clever payer, Waze.  The Waze system, developed by an Israeli outfit, uses crowd-sourced data to enrich maps with live guidance about road, traffic and other dynamic conditions.  Some of the ideas Waze developed have seeped into Apple and Google geolocation technologies, but Waze has managed to protect its intellectual property and thereby preserve its uniqueness.  It is still an app with lots of enthusiastic fans even now, when it is part of Alphabet’s empire but still in possession of some autonomy.  Alphabet doesn�t want to damage Waze, not after paying such a big price, about $1.3 billion, when it bought Waze nearly four years ago.  That buyout price is well within the range of acquisition costs that Facebook or IBM could afford, if either of them had decided they just had to own Waze.  Now, of course, it’s too late.  Facebook and IBM must find another path to the heart of geolocation technology if they want to enjoy a strong presence in this specialty.

google map
A Google Map
Because Android is so popular, Google’s map and nav apps are
the most widely used, and, like Apple’s offerings,
are tied to many of their vendor’s other interactive services

The popular direct uses of map and nav apps include locating a business, a person or a landmark; the provision of live turn-by-turn navigation from a client device’s location to a specified destination; the visual presentation of multiple prospective destinations in response to an inquiry about, for example, nearby restaurants; and provision of alternate travel paths when a favored route turns out to be blocked or otherwise encumbered by delays; and providing time estimates for journeys.

bing map
A Bing Map
Microsoft wants its Bing cluster of cloud services to persist,
even though the company has not been able to hold
a strong position in the phone market

There are lots of variations on these usage themes.  The basic map and nav apps are routinely exercised by emergency services, postal and other carriers, field service technicians, taxi drivers, truckers and many other people whose job involves locating and getting to a destination.

In addition to direct uses of map and nav apps, there are plenty of situations in which software offers access to geolocation services.  An obvious example appears whenever a user’s search yields results that include things whose location might be helpful or convenient.  For instance, if you look for a cinema, you will get a list of places showing movies .  .  .  and links to advice on how to find them and how to get to them by car or public transit or on foot.  This is an example where, when searching via a PC, Microsoft with its Bing Maps can be just as helpful and important as Google’s offerings.  On a Mac, using Bing for search also invokes Microsoft’s map and nav technology.  On PCs, Macs and other devices, users who turn to Yahoo for geolocation searches get results from tailored access to the Here service (formerly a Nokia offering), including map and nav technology.

While it is clear that Apple and Alphabet lead the geolocation field, the other contenders are also very good at this collection of technologies and all of them have some features that users and app developers may find worth considering.  The presentation layers of Google, Bing and Yahoo are different, according to a comparison article.  (That comparison piece left out Apple’s map and nav, which are compared to Google’s services in a separate essay by the same author.)

uber app
Uber On iPhone
The leading ride hailing app has a very attractive
user interface on its iPhone implementation,
here showing cabs in New York’s SoHo district

Yahoo’s map and nav offerings show that it is possible to build on Bing services, and, by implication, on similar Google and Apple services, too, yielding effective and appealing results.  But Yahoo’s map and nav apps, however attractive, do not add a lot of new functionality.  They are more akin to a performer doing a cover of another’s song: essentially the same words and melody, albeit with a new interpretation.  It is also possible to create apps that use major players’ mapping technology as a foundation and then build new structures on top.  Currently, the most prominent of these is Uber, the ride service app, followed in various ways by its rival, Lyft.

uber on Android
Uber On Android
The Uber app for Android is similar to
the iPhone version, as this example
from Adelaide, Australia, shows

Uber and Lyft are aimed at smartphones (although they do offer access with limited functionality via website access).  The rider versions of these apps each provide a dynamic display showing available cars in the user’s vicinity.  Then, when the passenger orders a pickup (and selects the type of car, if that choice is available at the time) the display tracks the arriving vehicle to the passenger, shows the journey and at the end provides some end-of-trip interaction, such as requesting a rating for the driver or, in the case of Lyft, allowing the rider to add a tip.  The versions of these apps for iOS and Android differ slightly, but are close enough in appearance for a user to move from one to the other without difficulty.  In addition to apps for passengers, each of the ride finders offers a driver app.  These apps, too, are based on geolocation and help the driver find the passenger, choose a path to the destination and offer some follow-up features, including rating the passenger.

These apps are so successful that they have spawned similar apps to serve special markets or unique locales.  In London, for instance, there are apps to call traditional black cabs, the fine taxis that these days are suffering from the one-two punch of Uber’s lower prices and the phone app’s superior convenience.  Like Uber and Lyft, the black cab apps have companion software for drivers.

Entrepreneurs looking in admiration at Uber and Lyft have tried to apply similar concepts to other kinds of services.  For instance, Postmates, which provides delivery services to businesses, helps shops and restaurants get their goods to customers.  It’s a catchy idea that has attracted a ton of prospective users ranging from corner delis to high end restaurants to a variety of shops.  It is growing and reaching out to more cities and their suburbs.  But it hasn’t had an easy time, according to an in-depth piece about the company’s struggle to boost capitalization that was published last fall.  Still, the company is persisting, and so are others with similar ambitions.  The hope of Postmates and its ilk is that all kinds of retailers will get on board so they can compete with Amazon, which not only has a great logistics business but one that a customer can use to speedily deliver merchandise by asking Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, for a little help.

Notwithstanding all this activity built on geolocation technologies, some of the most promising possibilities have not yet produced and winners.  Home, office and factory networks of smart sensors and devices ought to be abundant, but even the offerings of Apple and Alphabet have failed to win the acceptance enjoyed by basic map and nav apps, by the taxi apps and the still-struggling delivery apps.

The basic idea talked about but not successfully implemented by, for example, home security and automation companies, requires a local network (or mesh network) that can be made to invite new devices to join in.  A homeowner adding a door monitor ought to be able to stick it on the target door and get it to merge with the home network as easily as a Bluetooth phone merges with a car’s audio system.  The components are available at outfits like Lowe’s and Home Depot, and these super hardware-and-more outlets often can suggest or supply installation help.  Still, the field remains closed, led by premises security companies and the security divisions of common carriers.  The phone apps and web apps tied to these systems are okay but quite unsophisticated compared to the apps from ride scheduling or gig economy companies.  And small industrial companies, in stark contrast to large enterprises, still don’t have user friendly and affordable ways to manage their equipment, people and premises.  Instead, they use a lot of middle management capacity to keep an eye on things that technology can watch, squandering resources that might more wisely be used to improve products and productivity.

There are opportunities here for startups, for technology giants like Apple and Alphabet and for companies that are in between, including IBM.  But real progress may have to await the arrival of the wireless web enabled robots that will replace lots of low-tech alternatives, such as hourly, low-skilled wage earners.

The robots are going to be very well interconnected.  They have to be, because in the not-too-distant future these machines will be doing a very large portion of manufacturing work, traffic monitoring, routine medical procedures, security, supermarket goods management and so much more.  We will have to carefully monitor and manage these machines because they are the money-makers of tomorrow and, very likely, the very earners in tax base that will have to support people who can no longer compete with computer-augmented machines.

One may find this notion disturbing, but it is inevitable: Sooner than we expect, geolocation technology, which already brings us location, location, location will, aided by other information technologies, bring us dislocation, dislocation, dislocation.

— Hesh Wiener April 2017

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