Location services: Are we there yet?

Mobile location-based apps hold tremendous potential

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Friends, family and loved ones will soon gather to share that most cherished of annual American traditions: Getting drunk, pigging out and watching giant men try to kill each other on TV.

Super Bowl Sunday is also that special day when we see brand-new, big-budget commercials. But if you're a real sports fan, you'll notice that lineup of products advertised will be generally different from those hawked during regular-season games. Super Bowl ads involve mainstream products, including movies, financial services and web hosting services. But during the regular season, the ads are all selling beer, motor oil and tires. Why is that?

Advertisers know that the demographic of the Super Bowl is much broader than that of the fans who watch football all season long. They assume, correctly, that real football fans are very likely to be American men who drink a lot of beer and who care very much about branding when it comes to motor oil and tires. Of all that "demographic information," location is absolutely vital. For example, the motor oil and tire commercials would make sense to an audience of football watchers in Saudi Arabia, if Saudis watched football in significant numbers which they don't, but the beer companies would be wasting their money.

Advertising professionals have always obsessed over "location data." That's why everybody wants your ZIP code. Every time you sign up for anything anywhere, they want that ZIP code because, combined with gender and age, the ZIP code tells advertisers quite a lot about you. For starters, people within specific ZIP codes tend to have roughly similar income levels. Once they know that, they can guess what kinds of things you do, and what sorts of things you buy. They know the local weather, for example (no need to advertise ski equipment to people in Texas). They know what stores are available to you. They can even guess your political and religious affiliations with surprising accuracy. The amount of valuable information about people that can be gleaned from a simple ZIP code is enormous.

The future of advertising is the application of ever more accurate, more specific targeting of prospective customers. Advertisers want to know everything about you, including what your brand preferences are, your habits, your income and more. But most of all, they want your location. Not just your ZIP code. Not just the neighbourhood you're living in. They want to know exactly, precisely where you are at all times. That way, they can make you offers that are perfectly relevant to you, right here, right now.

Advertisers are collecting information about you already, especially your buying patterns, from Amazon.com, Facebook, Gmail and other online services. Amazon.com was a pioneer in this area. Even 10 years ago, it was sending me emails suggesting books that were exactly the kinds of books I was interested in.

And advertisers will eventually get your location from your cell phone's built-in GPS. But when?

Why we aren't there yet

If you look closely enough, you can see companies and users alike dancing around the periphery of total location sharing. Everyone is dipping their toes in the water, but nobody's jumping in yet.

Apple notified iPhone app developers this week, for example, that the use of the iPhone OS's "Core Location" framework was allowed only to provide information "beneficial" to the user. Specifically, the company said, "if your app uses location-based information primarily to enable mobile advertisers to deliver targeted ads based on a user's location, your app will be returned to you by the App Store Review Team for modification before it can be posted to the App Store."

Apple was also granted a patent this week for location sharing technology. The system would enable one caller to request another's location, and for permission to be granted, with one button push each. But so far that technology has not even been announced for any real product.

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