Saturday, September 18, 2021

Location Based Services Part 2: Privacy Concerns & Other Hurdles to Adoption

September 21, 2008 by · 28 Comments 

Google Maps on Apple iPhone

Image by niallkennedy via Flickr

Privacy has always been an issue preventing the mass appeal of Location Based Services (LBS) in the past. A lot of the really cool mobile application ideas have already been attempted in one shape or another in the past, but privacy concerns were continuously cited as the key reasons for their slow user adoption.

Since the mass adoption of sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, however, modern web users are continuously becoming less sensitive to divulging certain personal to the public, and even more information to a close group of friends.

Because of this lowered sensitivity, the privacy issue is starting to become less of a concern with both mobile and web applications that rely on LBS for adding value. In addition to this recent reduced sensitivity, other methods of overcoming privacy concerns, such asĀ  permissions control and location ambiguity are starting to become part of the new generation of LBS apps.

GPS is currently touted as a cool-to-have feature for location on modern phones, but many new applications, such as several iPhone apps as well as Google Maps, can use the triangulation method of finding your location to come up with a ‘good enough’ estimate of where you are. Nine times out of ten, you don’t need to know exactly where you are in order to find the nearest restaurant or movie theatre. This ‘ambiguity’ in your location, therefore, makes the issue of sharing your exact location with a web service less of one, because frankly, they wouldn’t be able to really ‘find you’ if they wanted to.

The other safe-guard that is increasingly being used is permissions control, particularly when it comes to sharing your location with friends or strangers. The iPhone has some rudimentary version of this with applications asking you for permission to use your location at the global level, however more granularity is needed at the application level to take this concept further. Take the Twitter application Twinkle, for example: It will use your location to sort Twitters that are near you that have public feeds. A more granular permission example would be to be able to limit your location sharing to just those following you, not just a global on or off of your public feed.

Privacy concerns aside, another limitation that has forced LBS apps to only appeal to enthusiasts has been their complexity and limited ability to share information across multiple platforms. The iPhone has recently removed some of this complexity factor, but it could still use some refinement on the cataloging and sharing aspect of locations. Many apps, now allow you to geo-tag, and although cool, this means little for the average user if he can’t easily share this information with non-iphoners in a easy, useful, and meaninful way.

Most people that have tried LBS apps in the past are either put off by the privacy issue, the complexity (fire up the GPS wait, wait, wait) or by the lack of utility it brought them after the ‘gee wiz’ period. GPS apps with distance travelled and the like are great if you are a geocacher, but for the every day person, does it really matter?

What does matter then? Well, lets take a scenario we’ve all found ourselves in… we are somewhere, and we want to share our location with someone so that they can find us and meet up with us. On an iphone, you can’t email your location by default, unless you download and install an app called ‘Over Here’ (or others like it), and even then you can’t email it to a non-iphone and have it render in a standardized map format. If you have a recent S60 Nokia phone, you can’t email another non-Nokia phone where you are in your native mapping app, because other phones don’t support it. So what’s wrong with this picture then?


MMS, as slow to adopt as it was, has the ability to attach images, sounds, video, or text to the payload of its message and to send it to another MMS-enabled phone. Both MMS enabled phones will be perfectly able to create and/or view an MMS message. So how come an MMS-extension for location does not exist? How come I can’t share where I am with another user unless I use a 3rd party application? How come 3rd party mapping applicaitons haven’t agreed on a sharing standard? Just as people are getting used to one message format, why force another on them that is inconsistent in its use to others?

Although privacy has been a long-timer hurdle for LBS, I believe that ease of use and inter-application standards have also hindered the growth and mass appeal of LBS applications. You could argue that there hasn’t been a killer app in this space and that’s why LBS in general hasn’t taken off, but part of being able to have a killer app, is being able to make it easily available to all, and unlike in the PC world, the mobile world requires a little bit more ‘influence’ by standards due the varying specifications of mobile handsets. Were there to be an easy way for location to be shared amongst all handsets, (perhaps everyone adopts the .gpx format?) in addition to the strides we’ve been making in privacy improvements, LBS on the mobile would be much further along than it is today.

In part 3 of this series, I’ll explore this topic a bit further and discuss some ideas that I have for LBS in the future. I am very excited about what LBS could do if it were well integrated into all mobile devices, and I am convinced that in the next 2 years, we will see an explosing of innovation in this field.

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