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Thu, Aug 28th 2:44pm 2008: Web Development

Just like the hottest rock bands, the latest "hot new thing" in e-business may seem to suddenly appear over night when in fact it's been in gestation for years, bubbling away below mainstream consciousness and appreciated by just a few bleeding-edge early adopters who saw the potential before it became famous. Then at some point in time a confluence of events results in an "ah-ha!" moment in the collective psyche, and all of a sudden the latest hot new thing seems to be everywhere you look.

I believe we're currently right on the cusp of just such a moment, and in the next 12 months we'll see a certain concept go from obscure "why on Earth would anyone want that?" status to "can't live without it!" ubiquity.

That concept is location-based services.

The great catch-cry in the early days of the internet was globalisation: the concept that an obscure little company in a backwoods country town could throw up a website and gain instant access to a global market and compete with existing multinationals, with their location being irrelevant. Nice in theory, but of course there were all sorts of catches and even now it's a rare business indeed that can trade online without consideration for the geographic location of its customers.

So people are now starting to realise that things like search results really need to take into account geographic location. I can't even guess the number of times I've done a web search over the years and wished I could apply a rule such as "only show me results for businesses within 20km of my current location". When you're searching for somewhere to buy a washing machine it really matters where it's located: the electrical goods retailer with the best washing machine website in the world isn't going to be a lot of use to you if you're in Melbourne and they're in Minneapolis or Mayfair. I dream of the day that Google Maps and Google Search are merged into one, and I can select an area on the map and say "search for 'dog grooming service' right *there*", or "search for 'scuba dive operator' right around this area *here*".

Most of the time we *want* location to be relevant, but on the internet we've lost the sense of physical context and proximity that is so important when dealing with people and businesses in the real world. We've been stripped of something that is fundamental to the way our brains are wired.

Another application where location could provide enormous additional value is social networking. For years I've talked about a hypothetical device that people could carry around in their pockets that would be a sort of "proximity alert" that tells you when a friend or colleague is nearby, allowing you to stumble upon chance meetings that right now are probably passing you by. Walking down the street there are times you meet people you know, but it's likely that far more often someone you know will have walked down that same street one minute before, or one minute later, or have stepped into a shop while you walk past, or been on the other side of the street. Wouldn't it be cool to have a device in your pocket that could say "hey, your friend Mark is just over the street in that coffee shop!" rather than walk past totally unaware? And for someone like me who travels a lot it would be particularly handy, because by expanding the "alert" range from say 100 meters to perhaps 20km when I travel to another city it would help me catch up with people I don't get to see very often.

You know what? You may not have heard about it yet, but those devices are in mass production right now by big-name companies including Samsung, Sony, and Nokia. In fact you probably already have one in your pocket. It's called a mobile phone.

A moment ago I talked about location-based services suddenly becoming a recognised mainstream phenomenon, and there are a couple of trigger events that are bringing it about.

The first trigger event is that almost all new mobile phones now have GPS built in: a while ago it was unheard of for phones to include cameras, but now many of them have two. Likewise phones with GPS have been few and far between, but very soon it'll be almost impossible to buy one without it. GPS will be everywhere, in everyone's pocket, and nobody will think twice about it.

The second trigger event is the release of simple, easy-to-use software and online services that take advantage of the ubiquity of personal GPS. That's the stage we're at right now: the hardware platform is out there in people's pockets, and now enterprising developers are dreaming up new ways to utilise that platform. One perfect example of the sort of building block currently being put in place is a new service from Yahoo! called Fire Eagle (, which might sound a little bit obscure at first but has enormous potential to change the way online business is conducted. The simplest way to understand what Fire Eagle does is think of it as a pinboard where you can post a note stating your current location, and that information can then be used by third parties to provide you with more relevant services. Fire Eagle itself doesn't do anything "useful" as far as an end user is concerned, but as a building block for other services it's critical.

The way it works is that you create a Fire Eagle account, and then use one or more methods to regularly update your location within the Fire Eagle system. You can do it manually by logging into the website and setting it, or you can run a little program on your mobile phone that regularly checks your location by GPS and updates it automatically, or by linking your Fire Eagle account to a travel planning service like Dopplr that knows what cities you will be in and when.

With your current location in the Fire Eagle system you can then authorise other services to make use of that information. Examples include websites like, which looks up your location and cross-references it to Wikipedia articles related to places nearby - a great way to find random interesting things in your vicinity that you may never have been aware of previously! Or, which is a search engine that personalises your search results based on factors including interests of people within your social network and your current location. Or, which (provided you're in New York or San Francisco!) uses your location to find nearby restaurants, bars, movies, and shops. Or, which does the same thing but for people you know who happen to be nearby. Zkout even provides a live map which updates to show what's going on around you.

How does this relate to e-business? Right now: not much. In the near future: a lot.

As users become aware of the power of location-awareness we're going to see a lot more services spring up that take advantage of it, and people are going to start expecting websites to "locate" themselves geographically. For example, websites will need to have location metadata embedded so that they will appear in search results when users search for things like "cheap washing machines within 20km of my current location".

And if we're really lucky we'll see an end to those really annoying websites that ask you to select from a country before you can proceed: websites should just know automatically where you're located, and behave accordingly. As a side issue while talking about this, one of my all-time most hated websites is, and for one specific reason: it won't even let you get to the home page until you tell it your postcode! They've got the right idea, but it's implemented in such an obnoxiously obtrusive way that it drives me nuts.

So in a year or two when you're doing a web search and restricting the results to your local area, or walking down the street and your phone tells you that your best friend is two blocks away, it will probably seem like the most natural thing in the world. Once again science fiction becomes a typical everyday event.

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