I’ve been involved in the location-based-services (LBS) industry since the turn of the century. From helping to build the first mobile network location determination capabilities at Vodafone, to helping bring the navigation technologies to smartphones that so many of us now depend on daily.
With that, I’ve seen many weird and wonderful ideas, from SMS based robot war type of multiplayer games to personal security and anti-abduction technologies.
Even though the technology has matured a great deal since the early days, with devices now being able to use more than one type of positioning technology, including GPS, Galileo, cellular and 5G positioning, Wifi and bluetooth beacons, one of the hardest things to overcome has always been the business model.
Is Location Useful Or Valuable?
For many commercial applications, knowing the real-time location of something has a clear and obvious value, as I have covered on the site a few times already (see below). However, the consumer value has always been a little harder to develop.
Consumer Value In Location Based Services
There were many things that we discussed in the “early days” of location technology, many of these were dismissed because they were either too complex, costly or just seemed creepy. Interestingly, some of these are now coming back around, so I’ll cover some of them quickly.
Location Based Advertising
One of the concepts considered too creepy was the idea that a fast-food burger chain might send you a promotion for “free fries” as you were walking passed their store.
This wasn’t just creepy (and questionably illegal from a privacy point of view), but the business context was flawed too. It would have been better to entice your potential customers to your burger chain when they were heading for a competitor’s premises, rather than offer something for free to someone who might have just been about to purchase from you in the first place.
Today the Internet and our apps are flooded with LBS advertising. When on Google and you search for burger restaurants, you completely expect it to show you those near-by (unless you searched at another location). Advertising in other apps nearly always has a location aware capability that advertisers will pay a premium for in order to capture your interest when you are near a place they can serve you.
Location Without Maps
It sounds odd nowadays, but in the early 2000’s we didn’t have high definition screens and fast networks that could deliver maps that consumers could use. In fact, we didn’t even have the commercial frameworks in place for mapping producers to sell their maps in any commercially viable way. Can you imagine a time before Google Maps?
With that said, one of the biggest push-backs I had from executives in the telecom and nascent mobile application industry was, “what use is location if we can’t use a map?”. There’s a whole other story here about how many people can’t actually understand a map, even though they think they do, but I’ll leave that for another time.
As such, I spent a lot of time developing use-cases for location that didn’t involve a map. These included raising alarms when things moved from the position they should be in (think – when a digger or large piece of industrial equipment gets stollen), field service dispatch (responding to an incident or customer request with the person who was closest and most able to resolve it) and other applications that were more interested in speed and elevation, rather than longitude and latitude.
Today maps are common place and many services use these either as the main user interface or as a component to deliver the end service. Also, though, we’re seeing many more of the non-map applications emerging, even if they ultimately are delivered to the user as an overlay on a map.
Whilst asset trackers could be considered a subset of one of the Location Without Maps use cases, I classify them independently because they often require maps to be useful, and their applications can be quite varied.
I worked on several asset tracking applications, from anti-abduction solutions that helped prevent kidnappings in South America to fleet trackers that tracked shipments across Europe.
The uses of asset trackers are endless, they can help find your lost car keys, even your lost car, track and plot the movements of your cats or keep track on your dogs. They can help find lost bags at airports, deter bike thieves, keep track of valuable cargo or hospital inventory and much more.
Asset Trackers and NB-IoT
The other reason these are in their own category is that asset tracking is a use-case that many mobile operators are promoting as they look to gain consumer adoption of their new narrow-band internet of things (NB-IoT) networks.
NB-IoT networks are designed to cover very wide areas, penetrating further indoors than traditional mobile networks (even underground) whilst reducing the power requirements of the device that needs connectivity. This all make tremendous sense for asset trackers, because they often find themselves in indoor/underground environments, don’t often needs to transfer large amounts of data, and frequently need to have long battery lives.
Let’s ignore the fact that many GPS-only asset trackers aren’t going to work very well in buildings, in dense cities, and especially not underground, the biggest challenge for mobile operators is finding the right business model.
Introducing Vodafone’s Curve
Vodafone’s Curve is a smart looking device with great aesthetics, and even utilises Wifi and Cellular positioning technologies as a fallback for when GPS isn’t available (e.g. deep indoors).
The initial cost of the device is pretty darn reasonable too, at just £20. However, in order to be able to use it, it needs to be connected and for that connectivity there’s a charge and commitment.
The Curve will cost between £24-£36 a year depending on whether you go for the 12 or 24 month contract.
If you are buying a curve to make sure you know where your car is at all times, then £56 for a year’s peace-of-mind is clearly good value.
It also makes sense if you want to keep track of your children or elderly relatives, as long as you can be sure they’ll have it on them when they are out and about, and that can be tricky. On the website, Vodafone uses imagery of a Curve on a child’s backpack, which I guess is either to hint towards this use-case, but it could also be talking about keeping track of bags, as the image of a Curve on a lady’s handbag shows.
There’s also an image of a Curve on a set of keys. Now, the value of this is questionable in my eyes. I suppose it depends on whether or not you frequently loose your keys, or as in the case of building and facilities management, whether a set of keys is shared between multiple people.
What Would You Want to Track?
The Curve costs £2-£3 per month to operate, at this price point what would you want to keep track of? Would you be prepared to pay a higher once-off price point to remove the monthly fee, and if so, would the things you use it for be different?
Other companies have been experimenting with “event-based” asset tracking. In this scenario, you could potentially get the product for free, but only pay when you needed to find it. The price per-find might be significantly higher, but I might be happier to buy one for my keys if it was “free” until I lost them. What do you think to this idea, and what price would you think would be reasonable on a per-find basis?