LBS: Fad or here to stay?

Read time 3min 40sec

There is a lot of buzz around location-based services (LBS) at the moment. Both Vodacom and MTN have products in the market. The question is, once the novelty wears off, will people still use LBS?

Perhaps the most popular LBS product at the moment is Vodacom`s Look4me. The product allows registered Vodacom contract users to get the approximate location of another Vodacom subscriber who has given permission to be located.

Being a new and interesting product, Vodacom users have been eagerly trying it out, finding out where their friends and family are. However, now that the trial period is over, the user is billed a subscription fee of R10 a month and R1.69 per SMS or R2.99 for a map received via MMS.

Now that users have to pay, the question is: will they continue to use LBS?

Stephen Whitford, journalist, ITWeb

Now that users have to pay, the question is: will they continue to use LBS? Cellular LBS currently does not use triangulation and it is therefore not totally accurate. Instead, each base station divides the area it covers into three or four quadrants. The software checks which quadrant the user is in and positions them in the middle of that quadrant, giving the distance from the middle to the edge of the quadrant as the approximate accuracy of the location given.

This is all very well when the cellular density is high, with the approximate location being accurate to around 50m. Still, this would only happen in a suburb like Sandton, Johannesburg, and there can be a lot of people within 50m of each other. Out on the N1 highway in the middle of nowhere, base stations cover a couple of kilometres. A location query for someone in Karoo would probably position the user within an area of 5km.

Added to that, there are numerous security features built in to the product, which means it is only possible to locate someone unless they really want to be located. Surely the whole point of location tracking systems is to be able to monitor where someone is going in order to check they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. If the person being tracked has the ability to prevent him or herself from being located, the product is merely a gimmick and has no business value. And will users really agree to pay R10, R50 or even R100 a month to check the locations of people they know (presuming that person has not withdrawn permission to be located) once the novelty of locating them has worn off? It seems unlikely.

I need the nearest...

Vodacom`s other LBS product, Look4it is proving to be somewhat more useful. Instead of trying to locate people, Look4it can be used to locate the nearest restaurant, fast food place, ATM, movie complex and so on.

To find the desired locations, the users simply log a query using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data and an SMS or MMS is sent to the user`s phone. The SMS or MMS also contains the contact number where applicable, which is really useful if the user wants to make a booking at a restaurant or purchase movie tickets.

Look4it is also able to provide the weather in different locations as well as providing projections for the weather in the days and weeks ahead.

The cost for content from Look4it is also cheaper than locating someone, varying between R1 and R1.79, depending on whether an SMS or MMS is sent. This has a more practical application as users are able to get information that is helpful to them on a daily basis as opposed to Look4me, which is a fun application allowing users to find out where their friends or family are (presuming they have permission to do so).

Still, it is early days and as the networks open up their LBS servers to other companies, the possibilities for new products are vast. The question is, will the products be beneficial enough that people will continue to use them?

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