Bill Roth, Ulitzer Editor-at-Large

Bill Roth

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Instant messaging gives us the ability to rapidly communicate to (and annoy) your friends and co-workers, but it also lets people know if you are on-line, or your “presence”.  Who you are and whether or not you are on-line important elements of your identity. But, since we life in the physical world, our location is important as well.

For people who travel a lot, or people whose business is not fixed in one location, the question "Where are you?" can take on added significance. There are a spate of new tools and web sites that can help the mobile professional answer this question.  In fact, location becomes a new dimension to being online. Being on line is no longer a binary yes or no. It is now a yes or no, and a where.

Many new smartphones include a GPS chip. The Blackberry Bold, for instance, ships with several applications to make use of the chip, and it is easy to download Google Maps as an additional application. While the GPS can take some time to warm up initially and acquire satellite signals, once it has a good fix, it usually keeps it. There are a number of useful (and less useful) sites that can help you find your way around. The ability to provide maps with driving directions is long established. There are also sites that will help generate real-time maps of your current position.

One of the most useful is oddly-named MoosTrax. A small application installs on the Blackberry. It is a bit unusual, as it installs as a new set of preferences, and not as an application. The application can be then set up automatically login, and update your preferences. Preferences include the update period, and the minimum resolution needed for a report. This is useful in allowing for only those updates when your GPS has acquired the level of accuracy the user desires. It also helps to save on data charges for un-necessary updates.

Several years ago, WarDriving was all the rage in the hacker community. This is the practice of attaching a GPS receiver to a laptop with a wireless card and driving around a neighborhood mapping Wi-Fi hotspots. While the bloom is off that particular rose, there is a new site, which does the cell-tower equivalent, OpenCellID. It also has a small application that loads onto the blackberry (or Nokia S60, or Windows Mobile phones) which allows the user to see information on their location, the location of the nearest cell tower and information about that tower.

This works only with GSM cell networks. All GSM towers have a unique ID attached to them as well as a carrier code, and country code.  The application finds the Cell ID of the cell tower your phone is attached to, and looks up where it thinks it should be, if it exists in the database. If the application does not find it in the database and it has a decent GPS location, it will add a rough location for this tower, If it does find it in the database and the location is of a sufficient resolution, it will tell the user how far they are from their cell tower. On the face of it this is useless application. Why do we need to know where our cell towers. The simple answer is most likely: Because we can. There is a worry that someone is creating a geo-location database that could help to knock out our cell networks with cruise missiles, but this could be because the author watches too much 24.

The state of GPS receivers has improved quite a bit over the last few years. For example, TomTom’s GPS products, like the new GO 740 , are essentially full computers with a Linux operating system, and now sport on-board GPRS wireless data connections for map and traffic updates. This is a marked improvement to the the existing models, like the TomTom GO 630, which has to use a kludgey Bluetooth data connection to get data at drive time.

There are a number of tracking items available for the TomTom, There is a good block on how to turn a TomTom into a tracking device here. TomTom also has their own version of tracking other TomTom users, which you can read about here.

People have been marketing Location-based Services for a while, but until now they have not taken off, for a number of reason.  Expensive hardware, incomplete data, and the difficulty into integrating various geographic data systems. Now that impressive, low-cost hardware is coming standard, substantial geo-data available for mash-up on the internet, location-based services are becoming a reality.

Imagine a world where you will be offered deals for things on your “wish list” when you are in vicinity of a retail store that has what you want in stock. Imagine being able to find the nearest location with the best deal on something you want after taking a picture of a UPC or QR code with your phone’s camera. For mobile professionals, having a device that will recommend a good cup of coffee in the morning, because you are travelling and its morning. Or let your family know where you are when you are away from home for an extended time. Or to simply let someone know where you are, especially when you do not have a clue yourself.

Its clear that a modicum of privacy is needed. You many not want everyone to know where you are. In fact, you many not want anyone to know where you are. So far, all the location based services reviewed in this article can be turned off.

It its clear that “location” is an important part of identity, and will play an important role in the kind of applications we see in the future. However, the digital notion of location is like superman’s powers: You can use it for good or evil. The onus is on the device manufacturer and software developers to use this power appropriately, and for we the consumers to take them to task when they don’t.

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Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.