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Location 2012: Death Of The Information Silos

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest post written by Robert Scoble, who travels the world for Rackspace interviewing tech geeks for building43.com. He’s one of the most popular (stalked) users of location-based services and has 8,215 friends on Foursquare. Here he writes about what the location-based world could look like in 2012 and what might keep it from happening.

It’s January 2012 and you’ve just gotten your new Android 3.0-based phone. You’re going on a road trip so you start up the newly-released Foursquare. Gone are the checkins of 2010. Now you tell it where you’re going. This time we’re headed to Harrah’s at Stateline, Nevada. But this is no Foursquare you’ve ever seen before. They’ve finally integrated Waze, Tungle.me, and Yelp information into it. So, let’s discover more of what happens on our trip.

As we pull out of my driveway in Half Moon Bay we cross a geofence that sends alerts to the various systems that I’ve connected to Foursquare. Tungle.me knows I’m meeting Mike Arrington for dinner at Harrah’s. He gets an alert on his mobile phone that I’m on my way and Glympse sends him the ability to watch my progress so he’ll know if I’ll be on time. Plancast lets me know that four friends are attending the Black Eyed Peas concert at Harrah’s tonight. I see that Siri is offering to find me tickets, so I ask it to find me some tickets under $400 each.

Later in our drive, the kids are screaming. Hungry critters, they are. So, we pull out our cell phone and tell Siri: “we need fast food along the freeway.” Siri has already been tracking us as we drive along and it now contacts the APIs from Foursquare and Yelp and then compares both of their databases and quickly learns that we mostly check into McDonalds and In-N-Out. The system talks to us: “we found a McDonalds five miles ahead right off the freeway and there’s an In-N-Out eight miles ahead.” It continues: “If you want to try something else other than your two usual choices, or if you need a recommendation for the kids, let us know.”

McDonalds sounds fun, because Milan likes their Chicken McNuggets and also likes playing in their Playland play rooms. So, we ask Siri: “does that McDonalds have a Playland?” Siri runs off to McDonalds database of Playland locations and comes back with: “no, but we’ve found a location with a Playland 25 miles ahead of your location. Would you like to choose that one?”

After McDonalds we hit Sacramento and now Foursquare, which has joined with Israeli-company Waze, pops up with a new warning: “there’s an accident ahead and travelers in front of you are reporting delays of 15 minutes.” Up pops a photo of the wreck that an anonymous user has posted. Soon we find ourselves stuck in that traffic and so we start chatting with people also stuck in the traffic. “Hey, have you tried the Beatles station on Pandora?” someone asks. Damn, is that Steve Gillmor stuck along with us?

As we drive down the road we’re constantly checking into various things and places. We ask Siri about National Historical places along our route and it pulls up Wikipedia entries about what we’re passing onto our screens.

When we arrive at Harrah’s, we cross another geofence which lets Arrington know we’re here. It also checks us into Foursquare, and tells us: “there are 29 other people we know about, including three of your friends.” Then Siri (which received a message from our geofence) chimes in with: “are you still having dinner with Mike Arrington at 8 p.m. at Friday’s Station Steak & Seafood Grill?” I answer: “yes.” That goes away, but on screen is a Yelp review about that restaurant and I
realize that the attire is dressy and I only have jeans and t-shirts. So, I ask Siri: “are there any other four-star restaurants like Friday’s Station nearby?” It answers with a list from Yelp and then it starts showing places that still have spots left for us this evening by querying OpenTable’s APIs. Siri then tells me it has found two seats for tonight’s show at Harrah’s outdoor arena, and asks if it should buy them from Stubhub?

Since there’s a couple of hours before dinner, I figure I’d find a cigar shop since I have a feeling Arrington might like a good cigar since the 12th Techcrunch Disrupt conference was a huge success. Siri again finds me a place named “Puffin,” which is a short walk away from the hotel.

While at dinner, Arrington says he’d love to take the Heavenly Valley Gondola up to see the view. We make arrangements to meet the next morning to do just that and off I go with Maryam to see the concert. Oh, and Siri automatically checked us into the Pepsi Loot app, because we were in one of the official restaurants that uses Pepsi and that gives us free stuff for checking in at Pepsi-serving locations.

The next morning, when I walk out the hotel to meet Arrington at the Gondola ride I walk through another geofence that Tungle.me has setup around my hotel (it manages my schedule and knows where I am) and it sends an alert to Siri saying: “I see you’ve left the Harrah’s hotel, can you let me know where you are going?” I say into my phone: “I’m going to meet Mike Arrington at the Heavenly Valley Gondola.” It quickly brings back a link for the Gondola ride and asks: “is this where you are headed?” I say: “yes.” It says: “if you buy your ticket at your hotel you’ll save $6 per ticket; see the concierge.”

After I get home, Siri talks to yet more webservices: Blippy, to get my credit card statements, and Expensify, for expense reports. Siri fills out my expense report with details gained from me along the way. It knows which dinners were business ones, and which ones were personal based on things I’ve set along the way (in Google Calendar, for instance, I mark my personal meetings with a tag).

I can hear you saying “Scoble, what are you smoking?”

Seriously, you can do a whole lot of what I’m talking about (including saving the $6 on the gondola ride) today BUT there is something wrong: these services are all information silos that aren’t aware of each other.

I tried to do most of this scenario this weekend. What happened?

  • I found out about the concert at Harrah’s too late to buy tickets.
  • I found out about the $6 discount on the Heavenly Gondola after I had gotten to the top.
  • I found out about the traffic jams after I had already gotten caught in them and didn’t know much about what caused them. And the system couldn’t tell us the best spot to have dinner based on traffic conditions (maybe if we had waited an hour and a half we would have spent less time in traffic).
  • I almost got a ticket because I didn’t know about a speed trap up ahead of us. If more people used Waze or Trapster that wouldn’t be a problem, but Waze doesn’t know about Trapster’s users and Trapster doesn’t know about Waze’s users.
  • We ate at a McDonalds that didn’t have a Playland. Siri doesn’t know about Playland, or that McDonalds has a page where you can look for locations that have Playlands. Our dinner date didn’t know we were running late because of the traffic jam (yeah, we called, but in the future they’ll just know exactly where we are and how long they should expect to wait for us).
  • Siri, when it worked, didn’t bring us anything serendipitous because it didn’t know what people on Google Buzz were talking about. It didn’t know anything about how many friends were checked in at the hotel, or at places near us. It didn’t know that a popular concert would start in a few hours and that it might have been able to get us seats.
  • As we drove along using Waze it didn’t tell me about historical landmarks. It didn’t show me where the In-N-Outs were. And when we wanted some coffee we had to switch to Google Maps to find Starbucks.
  • When in Google Maps I turned on the Google Buzz layer and it showed me lots of Buzzes from people but it didn’t try to point out important ones that might impact my experience. It forced me to click on dozens of Buzz items on a map in an attempt to find anything useful. Ever pick up rocks in a stream wondering what you will find underneath? That’s sort of like Buzz’s experience.
  • When I checkin with the new Pepsi Loot, it doesn’t check me into Foursquare, Loopt, or any of the other loyalty services that are coming out over the next few months.
  • If we flew into Reno instead of driven, TripIt wouldn’t know anything about my Google Calendar and couldn’t warn people on my calendar if our flight was late. And TripIt isn’t able to check us into the airport even though it knows our plane landed.
  • Yahoo news didn’t know that we left Half Moon Bay, so didn’t know that it should bring us news about Stateline, Nevada.
  • Gilt didn’t warn my wife when we passed by the outlet stores in Vacaville that there were some great deals on purses she was considering.
  • Paypal or Square weren’t able to be used for anything on our trip.

So, who are the winners and losers here?

Overall, the losers, so far, are us. In 2010 we’re seeing more and more location data silos being produced. The most recent ones are Loopt Star and PepsiLoot. These new services add more of a “tax” and don’t really combine in ways to make our lives interesting. That can’t continue if companies actually want us to use location-based services.

The losers, also, are the whole industry. Everyone will see slower adoption of all location-based services because of their limited utility if this doesn’t change.

But more specifically, the winners and losers:

Winners?

  • Apple, because it already owns Siri, which is the best UI for smartphones for interacting with the world around you. And hooking up all these different services will be pretty easy for them to do over the next 18 months.
  • Google, because it already has so much location and scheduling data and is gathering more every day.
  • Facebook, because it already has so much data about people that it can use to present location information to us and can sell access to that data to others, like Apple, who will use it to augment their experiences.
  • SimpleGeo, because they are becoming an arbitrage system for moving data in real time between all of these players. That should be monetizable in the way that Twitter is selling data streams to Google and Microsoft.

Losers?

  • Yahoo, because they haven’t yet figured out how to get us to share much location data with it.
  • Microsoft, because it is locked out of most of this new world too.
  • Gowalla, Brightkite, Whrrl, because they haven’t made any moves yet to present malleable social graphs in the way that Foursquare has.
  • Individual loyalty programs. The first ones, like Pepsi Loot, will probably be popular because they are first but others will find tired and unengaged consumers and will need to join up with bigger players to get traction.

Along for the ride?

  • Plancast, TripIt, Blippy, Tungle.me, Expensify, are all along for the ride. They provide unique data that the others don’t and unless someone else comes along that provides that data in a better way than these folks do, I think they are safe for the moment.

Disrupted?

  • Yelp and other restaurant listings could be disrupted in this new world where you’ll choose your restaurants based on where you actually are, what friends you’ve added to systems like Facebook, and tips from your friends (which are quite different from the crowd reviews at Yelp).
  • Yahoo News could be dramatically disrupted. Today, I met with the Yahoo news team and talked about needing different news based on where I was (I found out about riots in Guangzhou, China, after we arrived there and Twitter friends asked us if we were caught in the riots?)

Commerce winners?

  • Gilt, Foursquare, and Loopt seem to be aimed in the right direction by bringing users goodies for using these services. But it’s too early to say that one of these will be a clear winner in bringing promotions and offers to us. Bigger companies, like Google, with its huge sales teams, or, better yet, eBay, which has relationships with lots of small-town retailers, could totally change the game here.

So what could keep the world I laid out here from happening?

I’ve already caught wind of plans that Apple has to build Siri into a much more complete offering. You’ll be able to talk to your iPhone that will come out next year (Siri is owned by Apple but won’t be built into iPhones in a serious way until 2011) and you’ll be able to do a variety of tasks from ordering a pizza, finding a taxi or a movie time, to recommending a restaurant to take your date to. But what happens if Apple ends up building its own maps, its own location checkin service, it’s own advertising system for bringing promotions and offers to you, its own payment system, and its own travel apps? Well, then, this system would happen for Apple customers but that would weaken the ability for other companies to compete. And that would force Google’s hand into competing, or buying, these companies up, which would keep Apple from having access to some of these companies’ APIs.

But Google buying these companies and integrating them together with its voice recognition systems is probably the best possible scenario. Facebook isn’t a mature enough company yet to properly integrate all of these into some sort of new business graph and make that all usable by 2012.

Some companies are trying to integrate these services, or provide infrastructure that makes integration possible as well.

CloudMade is using the OpenStreetMap to hook these services together on a common map. And the IETF is working on a variety of standards to make it easier for companies to interoperate with their location. If they can succeed, the vision I laid out of 2012 should be a reality.

[photo: flickr/pinto 2003]

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