Mobile location will be an essential personal tool, says Yahoo!

As mobile devices become more location aware, there is a growing sense of unease about the privacy implications. “Check-in” services like Foursquare can broadcast your current location to a large number of people – and even casual misuse of Twitter can let people know exactly where you are. According to Michael Metcalf, Product Management, Yahoo! Geo Technologies, “social” location will become far less popular as consumers begin to use location as a personal utility, without sharing that information with anyone.

Metcalf, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Location Business Summit USA, to be held in San Jose on September 14th – 15th this year, says “our personal location history will become an essential utility: a diary of movement, a shortcut for geo-tagging photos, emails, tweets, and videos. Your personal location history could even look back in time and to see where you crossed paths with your spouse before you even knew one another.” He spoke to TheWhereBusiness correspondent Ritesh Gupta about the latest trends.

A lot of applications based on the location-based technology have simply offered a way to share one’s location to his or her social network. How do you assess progress made in terms of sharing a location based on certain proximity?

Despite the recent rapid growth of Foursquare, Gowalla, and Loopt, we’re only in the early stages of social location-based services.  Now that iPhone OS4 and Android smart phones enable background location updates, we’ll see developers create ever more compelling reasons for users to broadcast their current location.

I expect that users will more actively using smart phones to track their own movements without necessarily sharing it with others.  Our personal location history will become an essential utility:  a diary of movement, a shortcut for geo-tagging photos, emails, tweets, and videos.  Your personal location history could even look back in time and to see where you crossed paths with your spouse before you even knew one another.

As users become accustomed to managing their own physical location history, they will naturally be drawn to sharing their location with others.  Suburban parents, business colleagues, and students will find value in sharing their location anonymously with people in their physical proximity.

How do you assess the emergence of new generation of services that mobilise social networking in novel ways, including physical proximity as the starting point of most social relations and interactions?

We all share physical space with strangers: during our commutes, while shopping, even at work. Anonymously sharing your physical location will be the next shift in how people interact.  There have been many previous attempts.

More than a decade ago the LoveGety (the precursor to Tamagotchi’s virtual pets) sold half a million units in Japan.  While that was little more than a keychain that alerted you if fellow karakoers were nearby, background location detection on smart phones enable many more creative interactions.  Anonymous interactions could come in the form of ad hoc social gatherings, swarm-triggered deals at nearby restaurants, spontaneous social games with those in your immediate vicinity… or karaoke with a stranger sitting next to you on the bus, of course.

Considering that there are applications that allow users to quickly see a list of other users in their area that are also currently using the application, how would you like to such applications to improve? What would you like to see be it for user experience or even from their utility perspective?

With increased penetration of smart phones, all with background location updates running, it’s likely that someday everyone around us will show up around us on one or more applications.  And then we’re back to checking into reality.  There are hundreds of strangers around us.  Deriving any value from that fact – which you didn’t need a smart phone to tell you – will be the role of the apps that people are using.  I imagine that there will be a rich ecosystem of apps that help us filter which people around us share our interests, can help us, or want to play a social game with us.

There are also natural tensions in dense urban areas between ignoring, helping, and competing.  This is already reflected in many of the collaborative and competitive social apps.  Sometimes we switch seamlessly between these states.  While Waze is helpful tool for alerting drivers behind you of traffic problems, a driver stuck in a traffic jam might think twice before sharing a clever shortcut with every driver around them.  Foursquare also thrives on this tension: helpful notes can be tagged to a place, but there is also an intense competition to become mayor and to potentially earn discounts for loyalty.

As for utilities, more open location data!  We need to combine all of this rich user-generated data, aggregate, disambiguate and improve it so we can deliver a better user experience.  With an open places database, new business models will be based on innovative uses of place data, not just guarding, repackaging, and licensing it.  The chorus for an open places database is growing so I expect that this will be addressed soon by a Wikipedia/Open Street Maps-like organisation.

Earlier this year, Apple shared that it is working on a new communications based social networking application that they’re simply calling “iGroups”. The patent states that if one of the devices in your group happens to be without true positioning technology, it appears that Apple’s MobileMe service will provide some sort of “virtual GPS” capability to that user so that they could be aware of the locations of others in the group. How do you assess such developments?

I don’t want to put too much stock in a patent application, but since Apple owns the hardware and the software on iPhones, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trying to take advantage of the wealth of user location data at their disposal.

To your point, it seems that an iGroups platform would be less about selling more iPhones and more about locating people who don’t own iPhones.  There are potential privacy concerns to be sure, but if the applications based on a platform like iGroups are exciting, and users understand privacy risks, they will flock to the service.

Any open platform that connects mobile phone users through proximity-based social networks could be a huge convenience for organising groups.  I could imagine using it to create convenient, ad hoc networks with nearby colleagues at a conference, students in a classroom, or even promoting a new product by offering patrons in a store a time-boxed Groupons.

A couple of years ago, Facebook posed a question – should people first be given the opportunity to self-form before we assign them to groups based on their location? What’s your take on this? Do social ties seem more important than physical proximity?

It’s a Venn diagram: there are friends who may or may not be within our proximity, but there are almost always strangers around us.  Since we tend to gravitate toward the physical locations that interest us, we often have something in common with those around us.  Think about it: conversations on ski lifts, suggesting your favorite coffee to someone in a café, helping a tourist find the subway.  With Facebook, the pendulum swung toward virtual connections with anyone anywhere.

With background location updated, we’ll soon be able to have collaborative interactions with those who are or were in your immediate vicinity.  Strangers still sitting in a café you just left can see if you left your umbrella under the table.  Neighbours you’ve never met can broadcast a neighborhood association event going on next door.  And broadcasting my name and position info while I’m walking within a virtual geo-fence on the Yahoo! campus means that I could quickly follow up with a colleague I have a meeting scheduled with next week, saving both of us time.

There are many people with whom we passively interact, and we cross paths with them every day.  Anonymous, proximity-based interactions will formalise the serendipity of running into someone, even if that person isn’t in our Facebook or LinkedIn networks.

What is the best role a mobile phone can play in bridging physical ad-hoc communities and virtual social networks?

Now that background location updates are becoming mainstream in high-end smart phones, I’d like to see this trickle down to feature phones.  Imagine the potential applications for organising ad hoc groups and networks in emerging markets….

Mobile phone software interoperability is also key.  We need to ensure that location-based data is easily shared between social networks, cell phone carriers, and devices.  The natural tendency is for business models to create data silos, and this only impedes innovation. I expect that an open current location brokerage service along the lines of Yahoo! Fire Eagle will emerge, but it’s still unclear who will own that space.

How do you assess the current security and privacy problems associated with peer-to-peer and client-server mobile social network systems?

There are two types of risk in this space: 1) that users don’t fully understand what private info they are sharing, and 2) that users don’t understand the implications of sharing that data.  The first risk is the responsibility of the application developers – and one that Yahoo! takes very seriously.  The second is a shared responsibility. Developers have to think about worst-case scenarios when dealing with sharing location data, and users need to be savvy about what they share.

That said, user expectations of privacy naturally change over time.  I would predict that we are entering a period where users will be at historic highs with openness.  I think the next generation of users will demand control of how their location data is shared, and that the apps with simple but comprehensive privacy features will have the advantage.   But that is still many years away – right now people are having too much fun with these gadgets and apps to worry.

How do you expect this arena to shape up going forward?

In the short term, we will start to see the collection and aggregation of more granular location data and loosening privacy expectations.  Users will trade their current location for flash-mobbed discounts, convenient alerts based on personal geo-fences, and accelerated efficiency in how we manage and move through shared spaces.

The wave of innovation that follows this will be based on helping users manage and recapture their location-based privacy.  In the future, users will geo-fence the spaces they consider private, consciously keeping the more intimate parts of their movement through space in the shadows.   Fear not: Privacy-focused companies will find clever new business models to help users go back into the dark.

Michael Metcalf is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Location Business Summit USA, to be held in San Jose on September 14th – 15th this year.

For more information, email TheWhereBusiness conference organiser Lucy Lincoln or telephone +44 (0) 207 3757595.

About Cian O' Sullivan

Ace reporter, Cian, has moved on from GoMo News. He is currently the office manager for Photocall Ireland - Ireland's premier news and PR photography agency. You can check out the site at If you want to contact him directly about anything, Cian's new email is cian at photocallireland dot com.
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4 Responses to Mobile location will be an essential personal tool, says Yahoo!

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  2. Pingback: The potential of mobile location advertising | Neo Blog

  3. Joe McCarthy says:

    Interesting conversation, but I would have liked to learn more about what Yahoo is doing or planning to do in this space.

    For an example of how Nokia envisions serendipitous proximity-based interactions via mobile technology, I recommend the Nokia Instant Community post on the Nokia Conversations blog (which includes a video illustrating the vision).

  4. Pingback: The rise of geo-targeting | Neo Blog

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