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Cheat Sheet: Mobile location-based services

They know where you live...

Aren't most services location-based? How can you use a service without using it in a location?
Interesting point. However, location-based services or LBS, to keep it short, are all about using the power of mobile networks to locate a user and provide services specific to the location they're in at the time.

So my mobile - and my operator - knows where I am? How do they know? Sounds a little like witchcraft to me.
Not so much witchcraft. Operators can find you judging how far away you are from each mobile base station (the masts that send and receive communications to your phones) and so get a decent idea where you are in the country. In future generations of mobiles, it's likely this method will be replaced by GPS, more traditionally associated with sat-nav devices used by motorists.

So what can they do now they know where I am?
Well, imagine you're looking for a bar, restaurant, dry cleaner, whatever. With LBS, your phone can tell you which is nearest and even direct you there. Or, if you're lost, your mobile can tell you how to get home.

Is this all a bit futuristic, or is it actually happening? Can I get me some of those LBS right now?
Good question. The ability to find yourself on a map using your mobile is already here - O2 offers users just such a service with Streetmap on its i-mode platform - but in general LBS aren't widespread.

Why's that then?
Another good question. Mobile operators, pundits and other assorted industry watchers have been talking about LBS since the tail end of the last decade but have never really found a way to capitalise on them.

It's thought that the inclusion of GPS in mobile handsets could jump-start LBS. ABI Research predicts that by 2011, there will be 315 million GPS subscribers for location based services, up from a measly 12 million this year.

Of course, that necessitates the handset manufacturers actually including GPS in their devices. Nokia for one is starting to do just that, with its latest N-Series phone and, having recently bought mobile mapping company gate5, it's looking quite serious about LBS.

So, assuming this all kicks off as expected, what type of services will operators and that start peddling?
Smart posters and shops, which send information or invites via Bluetooth were once thought of as the archetypal location-based services but never really took off - basically because users didn't like them. Now it seems the mobile industry is favouring a more 'stick to what you know' approach. The most likely applications are thought to be navigation - basically bringing the functionality of a car's GPS unit to a mobile.

Well, that's not very imaginative is it?
Hold your horses - there's more. While directing shoppers who can't read a map into their nearest Starbucks might not be a huge challenge, there's a whole brave new world of navigation services and it's thought enterprises could lead the way.

Take Tesco, for example. It's using sat-nav PDAs in its delivery drivers' cabs and is exploring all sorts of new uses for the devices. Others are also using LBS for fleet management, although there are privacy issues to be dealt with with these services.

Any other good stuff?
Not one for the UK yet but one that could be a winner is location-based billing - where users get preferential per-minute call rates depending on where they are. Some European operators are already doing this by giving customers cheap calls when they phone from inside their home.

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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