What if... everyone always knew where you are?

There'd be no getting away from it...

There'd be no getting away from it...

Mobility is a key factor in the success of mobile phones. It sounds obvious, only operators will spend the next few years trying to pin you down. Dale Vile wonders why... The mobile industry is all excited over the prospect of delivering location-based services (LBS). The idea is to exploit networks knowing where a user is at any one moment. So-called 'find and guide' services, for example, could be made much more useful if they were location aware. Lost in the centre of London? Just ask your mobile device to show a map of where you are. Tell it you're thirsty and it will overlay the location of nearby coffee shops. Punch in your destination and it can direct you on how to get there. Of course much of this navigational stuff can be achieved today, and quite precisely too, if using specialist GPS kit. But what if your location was freely available to any application or service provider? Finding out where you are could simply be a matter of an application making a call over the internet to a web service provided by your mobile operator. There are all kinds of possibilities that open up once this is possible. Imagine, for example, an application provided to parents to track the location of their teenage kids. After all, most teenagers today carry mobile phones. This wouldn't suit all parents as some would probably prefer not to know where their teenagers are and what they are getting up to. However, if we think beyond the traditional mobile phone form factor we can start to envisage mobile technology being incorporated into badges, bracelets and so on. This would then allow a parent to keep track of younger kids and communicate with them in the case of an emergency - "Johnny, I told you not to go near that railway line. Now get home right now." Focus group studies suggest this kind of monitoring application would be quite popular with parents, the only concern being safety with regard to younger kids being constantly exposed to radio signals. Studies also suggest many bosses would welcome this kind of capability to track employees out in the field - "Hello sir, I'm just in the middle of dropping that delivery at Dollon and Co". "No your not, Fred, you're in that bloody transport café again that your girlfriend works in and you've been there for the last 45 minutes!" Carrying out focus groups exploring these kinds of applications can be quite good fun. Get a group of teenagers in a room and ask them whether it would be good if they could see the location of all of their friends on a little map that popped up on their mobile. The initial reaction is normally: "Great, that would be really cool." It's then fascinating to watch their faces for the next few seconds as penny drops: "So if I can see where all my friends are, does that mean all my friends can see where I am too?" That's not necessarily so cool. This brings me to privacy. Location information certainly presses that button. The regulator is already on to this and, of course, mobile operators will be restricted from giving out someone's location to all and sundry. Yet commercial considerations often override regulation. The fact is that users simply will not tolerate their location being completely accessible to anyone at any time and will stop using a service provider that attempts to exploit this privileged information inappropriately. While users appreciate the value of location enhanced services, they also want the ability to 'hide' - from their friends, their employer, the government or a retailer looking to push special offers at them when they approach a store. Most users go even further than this and express a wish to be invisible by default and only make their location known by exception. The principle here is exactly the same as instant messaging - sometimes you want your presence to be known, other times you want privacy and no intrusion. You need to be able to control this. As the mobile networks, devices and applications become much more aware of who we are and where we are, mobile operators will look to exploit the additional intelligence as a much-needed means of boosting revenues. This could represent a win/win if the services that result add more value to our daily lives but it would be inappropriate for operators to think they have too much of a free hand. When it comes to the crunch, we should regard users' locations as their own personal property, not the operators'. Let's keep this principle sacred as discussions on location-based services unfold over the coming months and years. What are your thoughts? If you want to respond to this article post a Reader Comment below, or email editorial@silicon.com to let us know what you'd like to see Dale cover in future 'What if...' columns. **Dale Vile is service director at analyst house Quocirca. His C.V. boasts years at Nortel Networks, Bloor Research, SAP and Sybase and his job now involves working with vendors and users wanting to tap the business benefits of technology. For more information see: http://www.quocirca.com Past columns:
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