Mobile Location Intelligence

Date:   Tuesday , December 01, 2009

Looking back at 1999, the annual production of mobiles was less than 200 million worldwide; MP3 was yet to be launched, no Smartphones. Just take a look at today’s mobile market. Wow! What a growth in 10 years? This year’s production target for mobiles is above 1.5 billion. There are six different Smartphone operating systems (Windows Mobile, Symbian, Black Berry, iPhone, Palm, and Android). The following are becoming the de facto standards in some form in the mobile phones: MP3, FM radio, voice recorder, bluetooth, 10 mega-pixel camera, HD video, WiFi, digital TV, mobile computing, social networking, mobile e-commerce, mobile credit card (m-commerce?), and now Location Intelligence with GPS, Cell Id, WiFi, and so on. No other market has seen such a tremendous growth in the last 10 years like the mobile market.

So, let me cover the latest and the next big revolution expected in the mobile market: ‘Location Intelligence’ (LI). What is LI? Gathering the relevant and desired information around one’s location or any other preferred location, processing that information on the basis of personal preferences, context, and geography and delivering it at an appropriate time can be defined as LI. We need basic map data of any geography with extensive layers of information (global, continental, country and even street level, and finally at the door number level of the target location) to achieve this. Further, information on POI (Points of Interests) and any dynamic data such as traffic, weather, events, and offers could be all labeled as Location Intelligence. All the geo information have to be coded into latitude and longitude (Lat/Long) coordinates, so that you can reverse geo-code by giving Lat/Long coordinates and get the actual address or position of the place or person you look for. Global Positioning System (GPS), which is a U.S. military term generally used by every one, helps us pinpoint the position of a place or person easily.

Now, let’s quickly see how does GPS work and then move on to various technologies, applications, and current and future market opportunities. A GPS device basically has a RF modem and antenna that picks up signals from the satellites (there are about 16 satellites that orbit the earth and send signals that are picked up by all the GPS devices around the world ? in a way similar to radio signals that are picked up by FM/AM receivers). Any one is free to receive signals from these satellites that are owned by the U.S. government. These satellites send their current position in the orbit with respect to earth. The GPS devices get the positions of various satellites in orbit. Using the information about the position of at least three satellites, the GPS device calculates its position on earth, based on a method called ‘triangulation’. Thus, we are able to identify one’s precise position on earth using the GPS device.

Now let’s go back to map data. Currently companies like Navteq (a Nokia company) and Tele Atlas (a Tom Tom company) are the major map data providers, even Google gets the map data from these people. This map data is not in a form that can be used by a common man or a consumer. The maps provided by the map data vendor are in a particular format and have to be rendered by the Map Engine, so that it is compiled in a form that can be read by a common man. ‘Map Engine’ is a complex software owned only by a handful of companies such as Nokia, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, deCarta, Spime, Navngo, and some others. The Map Engine has the routing engine incorporated in it, which computes the routing functions from point A to B to C and is used for simple textual navigation. Then comes the Navigation Engine, which can be part of the Map Engine or be independent of it. The Navigation Engine primarily does the turn-by-turn navigation, so that even if you miss a turn it re-computes and provides you the alternate routing with the help of the routing engine.

There are three types of Map Engines: Off-board, On-board, and Hybrid. Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo have off-board engines; you can access maps and their functionalities only if you are connected to the Internet. The most popular navigation application offered today by vendors on mobile phones, especially in the U.S., runs on ‘Off-board Engine’, which is slowly becoming obsolete.

Basically, in the off-board model the map and routing engine will be at the remote server and the device will access and download the map data and routing information from the remote server through the Internet. The off-board model for Web connected PCs will continue to be used for just mapping applications; but for mobile applications the pure off-board model will be less interesting in future. This is because when the off-board model was introduced, the mobile devices did not have the required processing power (it was less than 150 Mhz then) and storage capacity. But today’s Smartphones have a minimum of 400 Mhz processing power and 8 Giga Bytes of storage. Hence, the on-board Map Engine will be a viable model for any device that has processing power and storage.

With the on-board model, the biggest advantage for the common man or the end user is that he will have the power to access all mapping services such as location, POI, geo-coding, reverse geo-coding, routing, and full turn-by-turn navigation even while not connected to the Internet. For example, the complete North America map data is only 1.5 GB and if you go for only one state it is less than 200 MB, so if one has the needed data, he or she has all the freedom to use it and is never lost. Without the need to worry about Internet connectivity it works well like the Personal Navigation Device (PND) or the navigation device used in your car.

The hybrid model, which is a combination of both on-board and off-board functionalities, is becoming popular in mobile, PND, and Automobile Navigation devices. In the hybrid model, the device has all the map data, map engine, routing, and navigation engine resident in the device, no need for Internet connectivity for your regular mapping needs like finding your location, or any Points of Interest, or getting the routing information, or navigation to a location with full turn-by-turn functionality, and much more. The hybrid functionality kicks in when you want to look for any dynamic content or information such as traffic, weather, or events around a particular location or to download the map updates. It is capable of connecting to the Internet and fetching the needed information with respect to any location. The hybrid technology is great except for one caveat: it has to be ported on to every desired OS platforms in the netbook and mobile world such as Windows 7, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Black Berry, Android, and so on. But this is a characteristic problem in the mobile world (OS fragmentation) and we have to live with it unless someone comes out with a plausible solution. The Hybrid Map Engine is the latest technology; only Nokia has deployed it so far.

Today every phone shipped by Qualcomm’s hardware has the GPS module in it. Every smartphone shipped has GPS and WiFi in it. All high-end netbooks have GPS in them and all netbooks shipped in 2012 will have GPS and WiFi. Mobile Internet Devices (MID) designed today have GPS and WiFi. This will eventually enable the introduction of many more applications than what we see in the industry today.

Communication has helped the world to shrink; Location Intelligence will make the personal worlds of individuals expand. Both are positive changes and we can rest assured that more changes are round the corner.

The author is Shankar Narayanan, CEO of Spime. He can be reached at