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Geolocation is here to stay

By Jeremy Hintz / May 16, 2014


Geolocation is here to stay

The advent of beacons has brought the world of user location to a micro-scale we could barely even imagine. Apps can now guide you through the supermarket in the same way your TomTom used to guide you along winding country roads. However, the buzz around micro-location beacons is no excuse to ignore geolocation apps and innovations.

Why does it matter?

As more people are going online for everything from entertainment to shopping, where does your physical location fit in? Here’s why Geolocation is still extremely important to both consumers and brands:

  1. Despite all the interactions that happen online, people still connect to one another face-to-face in the physical world. Whether it’s a coffee shop or a five-star resort on a tropical island, people venture to new locations to find, meet, and connect with other people.
  2. People are hard-wired to associate circumstance with location. Think about all the movies where some twist of events has left the hero unconscious. Almost invariably, the first question she asks upon waking up is “Where am I?” Even if she is surrounded by people she doesn’t know or bleeding or tied down, the first priority is establishing a reference point.
  3. Location is heavily tied to important demographic data that businesses spend a lot of money to gain. A person’s frequented locations can indicate a lot about their tastes and habits. Tech companies and marketers are getting very good at taking advantage of that data.
  4. People are prone to form allegiances based on geographic location. (See sports teams everywhere)
  5. Location is central to the human and animal instinct to migrate and travel.

Ultimately, companies seeking to connect with consumers need to start by considering how humans interact with their environment, and a big part of that is where that environment happens to be located.

Who is defining the space?

Google Maps

Google Maps is doing its best to innovate in the crowded geolocation space. Maps received an update on iOS and Android this week that includes changes to navigation, transit, and offline use. One such feature includes lane guidance to avoid missing turns or having to cut across traffic when you realize you need to make a left at the next light. While not revolutionary, the features in this update are welcome to a waning mobile user base for the tech giant. Before the introduction of Apple maps in 2012, Google Maps had over 70 million users. Since then, that number has dropped to around 50 million, despite blistering activation rates on both the Android and iOS platforms.

Google Maps

One significant feature of Google’s Maps update is the introduction of Uber as a transportation mode. This is the first third-party service incorporated in Google Maps, and it could represent a new way forward for geolocation platforms everywhere. The battle over Waze that took place last summer was well documented, with Apple, Facebook, and Google emerging as contenders to acquire the Israeli company. Eventually, Google won out, paying around $1.3 billion. Google has only just begun to add popular Waze features to its Maps service, so the integration of Uber comes as a welcome surprise. If Google can pull in features from other popular geo-centric apps, they have the potential to pull back some of the users who opted for Apple Maps.

Foursquare & Facebook

Another major player in geolocation made waves last week when Foursquare announced it would split its popular location-based social network into two separate apps. The new “social” app, Swarm, looks to connect users with their friends by creating a social “heat map” that makes it immediately clear what friends are generally near you, which ones are active and where the “hot” locations are.

Swarm

It’s admittedly similar to Facebook’s recently launched Find My Friends service. It’s also a glaring reality that every friend-location discovery tool has failed to gain significant mainstream traction for the simple reason that people don’t really like to be tracked, even by close friends. Swarm alleviates some of those reservations by giving out only your general location.

Find My Friends

Meanwhile, the original Foursquare will remain, but will shift its focus from social interaction to discovery. This shift makes it more of a direct competitor to Yelp!, but Foursquare is hoping to leverage its social background into offering more personalization. Foursquare rose to fame because of the massive amount of data points it collected and learned about its users, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see this plan work out.

Yelp! allows people to share their opinions with the intention of informing others. It has found success because it capitalizes on two intrinsic desires of human beings: voicing their opinions and providing a service to their fellow man. This understanding of human nature is fundamentally what Foursquare has lacked, but they remain one of the largest players in the geolocation space, and this move certainly represents a move in the right direction.

What other trends exist within geolocation?

Privacy

Much along the same lines as sharing on Foursquare, people don’t always like the idea of broadcasting their whereabouts. This truth is multiplied a hundredfold when it comes to the government. By now it is no secret that the NSA harvests loads of our personal data, including tracking mobile phone locations. It also isn’t a secret that Americans don’t like their government watching them.

Several movements have cropped up as of late to try to combat this tracking, but the government has shown it is dedicated to gathering this data, and there is little any of us do to stop it. What this means, unfortunately, is that users have less trust for digital environments, making them slower to adopt new features, especially ones that might be tracking their location. There is no shortage of innovation happening in geolocation, but if government spying hurts adoption rates, that innovation will become less incentivized.

Big changes in travel and transit

For as much time as we spent talking about Google Maps, we have neglected perhaps the most important innovation in geolocation going on right now: the self-driving car! Google’s pet project is making news for progressing at a promising rate, and while there are mixed feelings about a highway full of autonomous vehicles, there are very few out there who think it won’t be available sometime in the near future. The self-driving car obviously represents a major shift within a variety of industries, but it will be a major shake-up for geolocation apps as well. One has to think that anything being built on Google Maps right now has to have self-driving vehicles in mind.

Going forward

Geolocation technology is at an exciting point in its relatively short history. Beacons may increase precision, but the world is still a big enough to represent on the macro, GPS-level scale. How developers and brands embrace the advancements in location capabilities will play a huge role in how effectively they target their audience moving forward—an audience that may be moving forward in a self-driving vehicle.

Jeremy Hintz is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin pursuing a degree in Computer Science. He’s also the creator of the Longhorn Game Plan App, a crucial download for any UT sports enthusiast.