Apple's announcement yesterday of a GPS-enabled iPhone is further fanning the flames of excitement around location based services and mobile social networking. Being able to connect with friends (and strangers), and to interact with your immediate environment via your smartphone is the new new thing.
But we still have a ways to go with all of this mobile-enabled location activity...
The economic opportunity is a big one, which is precisely why so many services are coming on line, and why so much attention is being paid to open mobile platforms (i.e., Android and LiMo) that will fertilize the space. In addition to the myriad of location based services (LBS) and online-social-networks-going-mobile products being introduced there are also many informal experiments that demonstrate the power of location-based mobile tools.
Here, for example, are some "geo apps" developed for the iPhone by students at MIT during a 3 month course:
"One project named GeoLife gives users a way to set to-do lists and get reminders on their phones. Walk by the market, and the device might buzz with a message that you're supposed to pick up milk. Another effort, named Flare, was designed to help small businesses like pizza shops cheaply track their drivers.
Then there was Locale, which lets users configure their phones to automatically adjust their settings when the devices detect themselves in certain zones. So you might set your phone to automatically go into vibrate mode in the office and silent mode at the movie theater, and ring everywhere else.
The other student projects included Re:Public, a social-networking program that helps people make new friends in their area. Loco offers a way to find events around town and invite other people. Snap guides users to interesting places in their vicinity."
But the cool factor has not yet translated into critical mass adoption. Basically it boils down to the fact that LBS services are still too geeky, most people don't know how to use GPS and triangulation on their cell phones, and social networking (so far one of the key drivers in LBS) may not be the app that moves the needle on location-based activity adoption. These and other challenges are well addressed in this pair of News.com articles on social mobile networking, here and here.
In the news space we are seeing some interesting, location relevant reporting emerge. In addition to live blogging, street-level video capture with cell phones, and the geotagging of stories and events on Google Maps, CNN's Magic Wall touchscreen introduced a new mainstream tool for location specific coverage. The latest trend, combining a number of the above features is so-called geo-broadcasting. A good example of that is Fox News's traffic helicopter which offers an (online) live, birds-eye view of traffic in Chicago, mirrored by a map which allows you to follow its itinerary in real time. But even these high profile efforts are experimental and not yet supported by clear, revenue generating business models.
Over the long term, and as some of these services achieve critical mass adoption, we should expect to see "smart" features that connect us more meaningfully to our real world environments and offer fresh and dynamic information and news all around us. Instead of walking along staring into our cell phones for directions and texting/typing messages, cell phones will truly become remote controls for interacting directly with our physical spaces. Here are the latest revenue projections and a whitepaper on opportunities & challenges.
Despite the newness of the space, news organizations should be figuring out NOW how to leverage both mobile platforms and formats to deliver news in new ways, and to go local. Unlike politics, not all news is local. But in a mobile world expectations are moving rapidly in that direction.