Location Based Services – Alive and well!

January 21, 2007

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I’ve attended many full blown telecommunications oriented conferences or evening network-oriented events like Telecommunications Executive Network (TEN) organised by Ben Crangle in the last few years. Sure as eggs are eggs whenever location based services (LBS) are mentioned a miasma of disappointment seems to pervade the room.

I suppose this is due to a industry-wide view that location based services have not really taken off or not met uptake expectations. To use the ‘Chasm’ speak of Geoffrey Moore; they have not yet ‘jumped the chasm’ into use by the mainstream market.

I wonder if this is actually true or whether the expectations of the mobile industry were just too unrealistic from day one? Was every product marketer looking for another major success like SMS? Although it is true that LBS services arenot exactly taking over the world, there is a good solid level of activity and a number of companies that have significant headway.

Location based services can derive location data from a number of sources of course. These include mobile cell triangulation, GPS, Wi-Fi cell usage, active badges, RF-ID and even the self posting of location. It’s also possible to derive location by recognising that someone that is actively using a keyboard and I’ve actually seen a Microsoft presentation (jokingly?) show a switch in a chair seat being used! I’ll not touch on keyboard activation in this post as it is moving near to what is known in the industry as presence, but that will be a subject for another day!

To provide an overview of what’s going on, here are a few companies that use some of these sources of location information.

Kids tracking

Tracking children and familiy members has always been seen as one of the core markets for location based services. Here are four examples: iKids, Chaperone, UandME and Followus. I have also come across several companies who track a child’s nearby location using wireless-based proximity methods. Unfortunately, I discovered that one of these, kidsOK, has recently hit the wall. According to the web site: “Sadly after more than three years building the KidsOK business, mTrack Services Limited, the company behind the ground-breaking KidsOK and PingAlert service has now ceased trading. We were hit by the liquidation of both our largest supplier and largest customer and have been unable to overcome the problems associated with the two occurrences happening so close together.”

Mobile social networking:

This is the one of the most interesting and dynamic areas today with services that enable individuals to determine whether their friends or ‘buddies’ are currently in the vicinity. Alternatively, they can let their friends know where they are. Generally these are associated with mobile chat services and aimed at the younger community and someone of my age! Location information is derived from mobile cell triangulation: Dodgeball, Jaiku, uandme and Loopt.

Manually entered locations

There are quite a few ‘simple’ location-based services that rely on users just entering their locations manually: Plazes, BuddyPing and CityNeo. This is nice simple non technical solution, as the provider can be quite specific about their location! Another entirely differant example of this is WAYN, where member can provide information about their travel locations.

Business services

Of course we should not forget business services for tracking employees, vehicle and objects (RF-ID is another associated market area). I guess it is the use of the word ‘tracking’ that has give LBS a bad name. Nobody likes to be tracked – do they? Closer and CPSlocates are but two examples.

Technology providers

To close, there are quite a few companies who provide the platforms, software and technology to enable companies to provide services. Here are just a few: Locatrix, Wherify, SkyHook Wireless and True Position.

Overall, if you look at the totality of the location based service market, things are not going too bad I reckon. There are a broad spectrum of innovate services and a slow uptake by the mass market – at least the young mass market!

As we all know, the real challenge lies in creating original business and service ideas to make use of the technology! This area holds a lot of scope so get your thinking caps on.


A BT game, or what?

January 19, 2007

You might like to play this BT game received via an email today. It looks like updated space invaders and it is quite entertaining.

However, its really a survey in disguise and you will also have to agree to BT’s terms and conditions as there is carrot of a prize. Methinks that this viral marketing initiative has been passed through BT’s large lawyer department!

Anyway, this is what the email said with the advertising for BT’s ExpertIT service removed. Enjoy!

BT Business IT Manager invites you to take revenge on your IT problems with the fast paced game Office Warfare, and win a fantastic day out for your and your colleagues.

It’s man against machine, or machine against man – if you can’t hack it!

It’s time to crash the computers. Click on the link to play.


How do I get my start-up started?

January 19, 2007

At the recent Mobile Monday event I attended, Sam Sethi talked about how much easier it is now is to get a company of the ground. To quote Sam as best as I can remember:

“In the last round of funding, start-ups needed to go to a VC, take business plan, present it to them, pray and cross their fingers, in an attempt to raise a few million pounds. This time, around which is why VCs are finding it so hard, you can fund the company on a credit card and when you take later take the business plan to a VC, you just provide a http://www.xxx.com link, and say ‘I’m profitable’, ‘I have customers’ and ‘I did it very quickly on sweat equity.’”

This is all so, so true and it is the methodology I have adopted for trymehere, although I’m not sure about the quick bit!

When Sam pointed this out, he was probably thinking more about the web 2.0 space where a ‘point application’ can be developed quite quickly using free open software. The practice being that you have a developer as part of the team rather than spending a fortune on out-sourced development in the Ukraine or elsewhere.

However, if your idea requires chip development or is a complex Operational Support Software (OSS) package, then it is likely that a larger team of developers would be required and the development may take many months to complete. This, is much more of a challenge to get going.

It’s most unlikely that you will be able to raise VC money on the basis of just an idea and a business plan unless you really are a serial entrepreneur with a history of success behind you. So, the real challenge today is just how do you get your new business off the ground while still paying that dreaded mortgage?

If you really do need significant money, it makes good sense to leave an approach to VCs to a much later stage by which time you will have real customers and more importantly, real revenue. This will maximise the pre-money valuation of your venture and reduce the percentage you will need to give away to institutional investors.

Friends and families can help in the early days and certainly individual angels or angel groups also, but again the more you have a real product and real revenue the easier it will be. But to be honest even angels are hard to find these days as they are still recovering from the 1990s.

One of the key ways to resolve this issue is to return to how companies were started before the 1990s i.e. bootstrap the venture. But, how do you do this?

When bootstrapping comes up in a conversation I nearly always push them to visit a great web site with the catchy URL: http://www.antiventurecapital.com . This may sound a bit negative, but it really isn’t once you delve into the material. The site itself is called The Smart Startup and it’s the strap line that says it all – Solutions for the Startup Funding Problem.

It also says: or How I Learned to Stop Waiting for Investors and Start Building Companies? Isn’t that what we all should be doing?

I really can’t recommend this site more and the acquisition of Peter Ireland’s guide for $59.95 will certainly get you thinking and just maybe provide some answers. (and no, I’m not on a commission!)


Default editor in Outlook 2007 is Word?

January 18, 2007

I’ve just been reading an interesting newsletter from Kevin Yank at sitepoint called Microsoft Breaks HTML Email Rendering in Outlook 2007.

And, according to Kevin:

While the IE team was soothing the tortured souls of web developers everywhere with the new, more compliant Internet Explorer 7, the Office team pulled a fast one, ripping out the IE-based rendering engine that Outlook has always used for email, and replacing it with … drum roll please … Microsoft Word.

That’s right. Instead of taking advantage of Internet Explorer 7, Outlook 2007 uses the very limited support for HTML and CSS that is built into Word 2007 to display HTML email messages.

Now, everyone who does any HTML editing knows that any programme within the Microsoft Office suite produces the most awful HTML code imaginable and nothing has been done in with Outlook HTML rendering for years.

The newsletter talks about many areas of incompatibility but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at actually how much bloat these MS apps add to simple HTML code. So I created a Hello world! text in a single-celled table to compare. The results are shown below:

Simple html (92)

<table border=”0″ cellpadding=”0″ cellspacing=”0″>
<tr>
<td>Hello world!</td>
</tr>
</table>

Frontpage (187 – 103% bloat)

<table border=”0″ cellpadding=”0″ cellspacing=”0″ style=”border-collapse: collapse” bordercolor=”#111111″>
<tr>
<td width=”100%”><span lang=”en-gb”>Hello world!</span></td>
</tr>
</table>

Word (517 – 461% bloat)

<style>
<!–
table.MsoTableGrid
{border:1.0pt solid windowtext;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
}
–>
</style>
<p><span lang=”en-gb”>Word</span></p>
<table class=”MsoTableGrid” border=”1″ cellspacing=”0″ cellpadding=”0″ style=”border-collapse: collapse; border: medium none”>
<tr>
<td width=”113″ valign=”top” style=”width: 3.0cm; border: 0.0pt solid windowtext; padding-left: 5.4pt; padding-right: 5.4pt; padding-top: 0cm; padding-bottom: 0cm”>
<p class=”MsoNormal”>Hello world!</td>
</tr>
</table>

Excel (572 – 521% bloat)

<table x:str border=”0″ cellpadding=”0″ cellspacing=”0″ width=”64″ style=”border-collapse:
collapse;width:48pt”>
<colgroup>
<col width=”64″ style=”width:48pt”>
</colgroup>
<tr height=”17″ style=”height:12.75pt”>
<td height=”17″ width=”64″ style=”height: 12.75pt; width: 48pt; color: windowtext; font-size: 10.0pt; font-weight: 400; font-style: normal; text-decoration: none; font-family: Arial; text-align: general; vertical-align: bottom; white-space: nowrap; border: medium none; padding-left: 1px; padding-right: 1px; padding-top: 1px”>
Hello world!</td>
</tr>
</table>

Even I’m surprised about the 500+ bloat! with Excel. Personally I would never use Word as an HTML editor and I would certainly never use it as the default editor for Outlook – it’s the 5 minute load time as much as the awful HTML editing that bugs me!

If anyone has comments or solutions about this issue, pleaselet me know and I’ll pass it along.


MobileMonday theme, Bubble 2.0?

January 17, 2007

Along with a colleague, I attended the London chapter meeting of mobilemonday whose raisin d’etre is to be a community of mobile professionals.

They describe themselves with the following words:

“The open community promotes the mobile industry and fosters cooperation and networking among people in the industry and their companies by providing opportunities for personal and virtual contacts.”

If you click through to the London site you can sign up to their newsletter and see the proposed subjects of future meetings.

Tom Hume (thanks for the link Sam) has provided a content thread of the event so I’ll not duplicate that here.

The subject of the panel was concerned with whether we were experiencing a bubble 2.0 along similar lines to bubble 1.0. Although the discussion was erudite, due to the quality of the panel members, I can’t say I gained a lot of additional insight to the chosen theme.

We should not forget that it was a mobile oriented event and not one looking at Internet-based Web 2.0 stuff, so listening to the discussion with a mobile filter switched on, I had the most curious feeling of deja vu throughout the evening. Having sat through many such events and vendor presentations on the subject of WAP services during the late 1990s it struck me that there is a view that not much has changed in the intervening years.

One of the aspects of bubble 1.0 that was not mentioned, was that were back then oodles of start-ups trying to force fit services onto an embryonic Internet infrastructure that could not support them from a performance perspective at the time. The service concepts were fine but they were just a decade too early! Two examples of this are video telephony and ASP services (services hosted in the network rather than running on your local PC).

Nearly all of these ventures were doomed from the start because performance and reliability of the extant IP networks turned out to be marginal at best (this was one of the contributing factors to the subsequent market crash, along with much too money being invested in these non-workable concepts). With Internet services, all that is pretty much behind us now that we have such a high penetration of broadband in homes. Perhaps if, like Snow White, those entrepreneurs had gone to sleep for a decade and woken up in 2006 they would now be in a position to really deliver all those innovative services of yesteryear!

It strikes me, if we can put 3 / 3.5G to one side for the moment, that in this sense we are replicating bubble 1.0 again. It could be conjectured that this is where we are again with today’s mobile data and content services with many good ideas being stifled by:

  • the poor level of mobile network infrastructure performance.
  • the severely limited capabilities of the mobile phone itself – principally screen size.

Today, mobile service evangelists are busily developing sensible content-based services but take up is constrained because of poor user experience. This leads to poor revenue which is compounded by the perceived need to make services free with a contribution to cost derived from advertising.

Overall, it was an enjoyable and useful evening and it’s always pleasing to see how buoyant the UK really is with entrepreneurial energy.

Maybe today’s mobile entrepreneurs should go to sleep and wake up ten years from now to find that much neeeded mobile infrastructure that could deliver a user experience that would be second to none?

Let’s hope that bubble 2.0 is different from bubble 1.0 and this is not required!


Colocation – a 2007 forecast?

January 16, 2007

I received an email update from Tim Anker the other day who runs the colocationexchange in London. Tim originally worked for Band-x in London, one of the very first bandwidth exchanges set up in the late 1990s. When Band-x decided to divest itself of its colocation exchange activities, Tim acquired the assets and the new venture opened its doors in September 2004.

Tim sent out his usual annual update that starts with the words:

We were also very conscious of the fact that the UK market in particular had reached a worrying impasse, one which we didn’t wish to comment on without first careful consideration of the situation. So nothing like a bit of a lull over the Christmas period to provide the ideal chance for such processes, so please find our thoughts and comments below.

One of Tim’s comments when reviewing 2006 was:

“I think it’s fair to say the impact this merger has had on the pan-European colocation industry has been profound to say the least and certainly accelerated the belief that this is very much a sellers market these days, in sharp contrast to the years prior to 2005.”

I think this is a classic case of British understatement, as certain post-acquisition colos, tripled, if not quadroupled their prices, in 2006 as they sought to focus on attracting corporate datacentre business rather than small hosters.

Following his review of 2006 he provided his predictions for 2007:

So, for 2007, what shall we go for?:

  • Expect to see more facilities open – hot markets being London, Paris and Dublin
  • In London in particular we still expect new facilities to open outside of the M25
  • With regards pricing the trend will still be up in general
  • New entrants – yes, not just new facilities but new entrants as well. We don’t believe the changes in fortunes for the industry are going unnoticed and as we did five years ago, we are seeing a wide range of interested parties.

Anyway, Tim is your man if you have any questions about the UK colocation business and if you contact him through their web site I’m sure he’ll send you the full update by email.

By the way, if you need to know what’s going on in the datacentre world on a regular basis, there is another very useful monthly newsletter issued by BroadGroup called, surprisingly, Data Centres News and you can sign up to receive it here.


That Book! Mobile Web 2.0!

January 15, 2007

I’m an avid reader of books and feel completely lost if I’m not reading one (sad, but I’m Radio 4 listener as well!). I’ve just started The Long March, by Sun Shuyen which talks about the fledgling Chinese Communist Party’s 10,000 mile march around China fleeing Chaing Kaishek’s army.

The myths arising from that march formed the basis of Mao Tse Tung’s barbaric domination of China for so many years. However, this is supposed to be a technology blog…

I also read many technical books – not deeply technical ones I might say, but certainly ones that make me think about what’s happening in the market and could potentially change the way I think about things. I suppose I have to say that I more than more often than not just skim them, highlighting and /or scribbling in the margin at those points that seem significant or more often those I disagree with. I’m sure all this knowledge will prove to be useful one day :>).However, I did actually read one book from cover to cover.

A book I recently bought from Amazon was Mobile Web 2.0 by Ajit Jaoker and Tony Fish. Both of these guys are well known on the conference circuit and Ajit runs a well known blog called OpenGardens, a term that derives from a juxtaposition of the term walled garden services that block access to the open Internet . Walled garden serives allow their customers to access the content and services they choose to provide. This used to be the case in the early days of the Internet world with companies such as Compuserve and AOL, but this is all long in the past – or is it?

Well actually, no it isn’t in the world of mobile phone service providers, however, I digress.

The book’s strap-line is “The innovator’s guide to developing and marketing next generation wireless/mobile applications” and it certainly represents a tour de force at 324 pages in thickness.

The authors state in the introduction that:“this book looks at mobile applications in an unconventional manner” and it certainly succeed. To quote:

“If you see mobile applications as purely as an extension of the web, you are going to struggle with this book” and…

“If you see mobile applications as merely an access technology within a standalone industry… Put the book back on the shelf and move on”. (This is more difficult when the book’s been bought from Amazon!) and…

“If you see that mobile applications and the web are symbiotic with distinct and unique values that need to learn and grow together; you are not going to put this down”.

I guiltily have to admit that after participating as a marketeer for many years in the growth of the PC and Internet markets, the first two statements sum up my views perfectly! I guess that makes me a 100% Luddite that should be relegated to Web 1.0 history. Oh well.

In spite of this, I do have to recommend the reading of this book as it does contain some real nuggets. for those trying to get to grips with mobile content services. A one sentence review, would say that the book takes all the definitions and jargon that provide the essence of Web 2.0 philosophy and extends (stretches?) them to encompass data and content services as accessed (whoops sorry!) via a mobile phone.

This post is not meant to be a proper review of the book , so I’ll just point to one or two of the point I highlighted while reading.

Early on there is a one-page section called A word of caution:

“The Telecoms environment and its slow moving, complex decision-making processes perplex most developers. Hence, a word of caution is needed. When we first discussed the idea of OpenGardens with a well-known Telecoms industry veteran, he said that the book should come with a ‘Health warning’. Keep away! Too many have gone down this path with visions of gold rush ‘Ia Klondike’ but have died a snowy death. Here is a brutally frank paraphrased view point, coming from a Telecoms industry insider:”

I won’t go through the advice listed here as you should really buy the book, but I most certainly agree with the sentiments. I give this sort of advice to so many start-ups who believe they can use either a fixed or a mobile operator as a channel or they will become a key prospect. Not a good in general. I will post more on this subject at some time.

On page 75 there is an interesting section entitled Significance of the mobile device – Maslow revisited that includes the sentence :

“This relationship is unique [between people and their mobile phones] i.e. one does not feel the same emotional empathy with their PC as they do with their mobile device”.

This is a key thread that permeates much of thebook. Wow, I have to say I wish I felt that way (a luddite again). I have MUCH more empathy with my PC than my phone. I guess that is because I’m not 16 and am one of the Web 1.0 folks who will not be able to adapt to this new world.! Mind you I swear just as much at Windows crashing as I do at my total inability to find my around the arcane menu structure on my mobile phone!

Do other people who have always worked in the mobile world share this view I wonder?

In a later section it says The mobile phone network is the computer:

“Back in the 1970s, Bill Gates articulated his vision of ‘a computer on every desk, and every one running Microsoft software’. By the late 90s, that vision was largely complete. Another profound vision was articulated by Sun Microsystems58 co-founder John Gage in 1984. It concerned a different model called ‘distributed computing’ and it said: ‘The network is the computer’. By the late 1990s, that vision was also almost realised, especially with the rise of the Internet….” Sun still use this strap line as I saw it at an exhibition before Christmas).

“What if we could extrapolate the ideas of a ‘computer’ and a ‘network’ to a higher level in the stack and especially to a ‘Network of mobile phones’?

Finishing with:

“Thus, in a mobile 2.0 context, we could say ‘The mobile phone network is is the computer. Of course, when we say ‘phone network’ we do not mean the ‘Mobile [capitalisation again?] operator network. Rather we mean an open, Web driven application…”

These comments raised all sorts of interesting emotions and reactions when I read them, which I guess, is what the authors intended. But the thought that a mobile phone could be on a higher level does make me blink somewhat !

As this is only meant to be a short post, I will stop here. The book is a highly entertaining and thought provoking book and I commend Ajit and Tony on their efforts, even though I found parts hard to swallow without shouting out aloud!

Go buy it and I look forward to their next one.


The mobile or cell phone appears normal, but…

January 13, 2007

WARNING! Using surveillance devices, intercepting and/or recording audio conversations, without the consent of all the
parties involved might be illegal in your country. Check local laws before or purchasing and/or using any of our products

Well, that’s the warning on the web site of SpyPhones. As it seems prices do not include 19% dutch [sic] tax, I assume its a Netherlands company.

There was quite a kerfuffle last night on the BBC regional news last night about spy software on mobile phones. So I thought I would take a look at what was going on and I have to admit to being a little surprised.

Their About page says…

We already have experience with spyphones for 5 years. We have tested all availableSpyphones from the first bug phone till the latest Spyphone Interceptors. We are [sic] Manufacturer and distributor of Spyphones and we make most of the modifications ourselves. We deliver worldwide within one week…

They are Symbian based cellular phones whit [sic] modified software programmed on it. With this software you are able to turn the phone in a Spy phone, call and audio recorder, Security device and be able to send encrypted SMS messages.

These GSM Spyphones look and operate like a normal phone…

But when you call the phone from one special number programmed in the phone the spy phone will be turned into a sophisticated bugging device, allowing you to hear what is going on in the vicinity of the phone. The spy phone works like a normal mobile phone and so shows nothing suspicious or unusual to the user.

When a key is touched the Spyphone automatically breaks the connection to prevent suspicioun [sic]. The phone appears normal and in standby mode.

It couldn’t be easier it seems…

However when you call the phone using the phone’s special number, it automatically answers without letting the owner being aware that you are connected to their phone. It allows you listen discreetly to what is going on up to 5 meters away from the phone.When anyone is calling or recieving a phonecall with the phone, you will get an SMS message wich tells you what the phone is doing. Then you can call to the phone and listen to the conversationrom anywhere in the world with no range limitations, just dial in and listen….

Since all modifications to the phones are made very carefully, neither Spy-phone user nor a technician of any skill can find out it is a special spyphone.

Their usage is quite clear I think, but they clearly enumerate some ideas:

* Keeping track of your partner.
* See if you can trust your business partner.
* Listen in sales talks of your employees.
* Protecting your children
* To reveal secrets.

It does make sense for us all to be careful about what phones are in our vicinity when having an important discussion. You never know who might be listening!


Explanations about how certain companies can offer ‘free’ international calls

January 12, 2007

On TechCrunch today is an interesting post Complicated Laws = Free Calls about a new service that offers free calls to many ‘foreign countries’ (that’s you and me in the UK by the way).

It’s the comments that are well worth a read, as there some good explanations of the bizarre regulations that make this possible. The UK has had its own selection of companies and its own curious regulations for some time.


35th anniversary of the Intel 4004 microprocessor

January 12, 2007

A group of engineers have taken the effort to recreate the 4004 as an anniversary project to build a larger than life model displayed in Intel’s museum in the Robert Noyce building in Santa Clara. They have had to recreate the original schematics as they have long since been filed away and lost. As the 4004 was the world’s first microprocessor, take a look as it’s a great project.

God, doesn’t time just fly? It seems that I’ve saying that I’ve “been in technology” for 25 years for simply ages. Wrong. It looks like 35 years is now nearer the mark! I want this blog to look forward rather than backward, but my readers will have take a little of my nostalgia pie I’m afraid!

35 years ago, back in those early years of the 1970s, I was one of the lucky recipients of the world’s first ever microprocessor, the MCS-4004. As has proved to be the case of other technology revolution I’ve had the luck to be participate in since, I had absolutely no idea at the time of the future impact of these beasts.

I worked in ICL’s Advanced Research Laboratory at the time and I believe I received the first 4004 in the UK – as I did with the later 8008 and 8080. Where did I actually get them from? Well a little start-up called Intel had opened a UK office just outside of Oxford and was staffed by only two sales guys – I probably still have their business cards somewhere in the attic if I could be bothered to delve deep enough.

What seems so funny to me today, was that it took me several months to remember this funny term microprocessor and I was very confused about how to pronounce the word You see, I used the UK pronunciation while these two sales guys used the American way. I had no idea which was correct. Indeed this confusion still reigns today and is not limited to just the word microprocessor.

Having this little DIL (dual in package) just locked away in my desk drawer was not really on as I was expected to do something with it. So I went up to the floor above mine and asked a number of ICL New Range mainframe architects for suggestions. None were forthcoming and, bar one of them, they were all quite dismissive. We had absolutely no idea what we could use this tiny processor for.

In the end, I built a little demonstrator that toggled a port connected to those new fangled things called LEDs. So much for revolutionising the world electronics industry!

A while later I received an early example of the 4040 and 8008, the 8-bit follow on to the 4004. I still have the programming manuals for the 4040 and the 8008 and they are quite amazing to read in the light of the powerful multi-core microprocessors we have today.

I eventually came up with an idea on how to use the 8008. I was busy building a test machine for Intel’s first 1k bit dynamic memory, the 1103 and I needed to programme it from the standard computer input media of the time – a paper tape reader. So that is what I designed, an 8008 powered paper tape reader. Wow!

We first needed an assembler programme to convert the 8008 assembly language instructions into binary, so we wrote one in Cobol to run on an ICL 1900 mainframe computer. I actually found the listing of the PTR programme the other day printed out on typical mainframe hammer printer paper of the time. From what I remember, as there were no 8-bit wide programmable ROMs at the tim,I had to put the programme into two 4-bit 256 word types.

Those old computer rooms were just marvellous to behold. Lots of deafening line printers chugging away together with all those high speed paper tape readers spewing 8” rolls of tape through high into the air. Now if, they ever went wrong… Using a PC as I am now, is nowhere near as much fun as is far less impressive.

Anyway, that paper tape reader really worked well and ICL did eventually take microprocessors more seriously, though it was a few decades later I suspect.