Over the last couple of years, midrange cellular handsets have expanded their appeal by packing on features. And it can be fun, cool and even convenient to have your phone double as a camera or a music player. But let's face it: Given today's technology, a phone is unlikely to displace a digital camera or an iPod in your "digital lifestyle" arsenal. A phone is--and should be--designed, above all, to be a phone.
The point here is that, so far, the fun, cool and convenient handset features are not new applications for most cell phone users. Even if you don't have an MP3 player, chances are you have a CD, cassette, record or even eight-track-tape player.
But mass deployment of location-based services (LBS) could be completely new.
Asian operators like South Korea's SK Telecom and Japan's KDDI have offered LBS for some time. And Nextel (now part of Sprint) has offered LBS in the States on a limited basis for years. But now the services are being deployed more broadly, at least to U.S. customers. Verizon Wireless started deploying LBS in January. Cingular Wireless now offers it to enterprise customers and plans to extend the offer to consumers next year. And other major U.S. wireless operators are said to be working on it. Market watchers Juniper Research, in a 2005 report, said the total available market for LBS will rise from about $1 billion last year to more than $8.5 billion by 2010. Some projections are even higher.
LBS is a broad category that includes services like turn-by-turn navigation and location-specific applications (for example, locating the nearest Italian restaurant). Many consumers--but not an overwhelming number--have gotten a taste of such services via personal navigation devices, in-car navigation systems and PDAs.
But LBS on midrange handsets could spur entirely new applications in gaming and even social networking. Navteq, which provides digital map information, sponsors an annual developers contest around LBS-based applications. Finalists this year included imaginative treasure-hunting games and a platform for organizing and distributing location-based social-networking content.
Those types of applications promise a brand new experience, as opposed to a handy fill-in for a device someone already has. Plenty of gaming platforms are out there, but how many incorporate global positioning? Motorola's popular Razr handset "will never have the graphics and processing capability that an Xbox has," says Motorola product manager Blake Bullock, "but an Xbox won't be in the places where people are mobile."
Would the promise of imaginative new LBS applications be compelling enough to inspire users to get a new cell phone? "We'd like to think so," Bullock says, "but we don't know."