A mobile app that doesn’t take advantage of your location information is becoming a rare breed. But developers must create different geo apps for each different phone—Android, iPhone, Blackberry, you name it. And that ignores all of the dumb phones out there (sorry, feature phones). So far, the main way to make a geo app is to tap into the GPS or other location data on the phone itself. But WaveMarket, which today is renaming itself Location Labs, is offering developers a new way to gather location data from phones: directly from the carriers themselves.
The mobile carriers obviously can collect location data on any phone on their networks. But it is not easy for developers to work with the carriers to access that data, and the carriers charge money for it. Location Labs already works with AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile in the U.S. (but not yet with Verizon) and is offering geo-location APIs which tap directly into their cellular network infrastructure. “This platform can locate 180 million phones with a remote API, no download required,” says CEO Tasso Roumeliotis. Instead, the location data is all server-based.
What that means is that location based apps can be built for feature phones as well as smartphones, and delivered via SMS or the mobile Web. Location Labs is also launching a second geo-fencing API which can be triggered whenever a user is near a certain location, or a friend is nearby. Developers can sign up here for the the APIs (the first 200 to enter the code “TECHCRUNCH” will be accepted).
The APIs are not free. Developers will be charged anywhere from a tenth of a penny to 3.5 cents per data call, but Location Labs is trying to get the carriers to shift to more of a freemium model where they only start charging once an app becomes popular. The big benefit of getting the geo data from the carriers themselves is that it can be applied across many different types of phones. Location Labs manages the connection to the carriers, as well as a privacy portal for users which tells them which apps have access to their location data and gives them controls to change permissions.
As WaveMarket, it’s been around since 2002 and powers paid apps distributed by carrier partners such as the AT&T Family Map and Sprint’s Family Locator. Nokia also uses the technology for geo-fencing services overseas. The company is already doing double-digit millions of dollars in revenue through its own apps and OEM deals, says Roumeliotis, and is profitable. With the beta launch of its geo APIs and its rebranding, Location Labs is trying to reposition itself as a platform for mobile app developers. He even hints it might file to go public within the next 18 months.
The Location Labs API extracts longitude and latitude from the carriers it works with and then delivers that to the app developer. So Foursquare or Gowalla could create SMS or mobile Web versions of their apps allowing people to check in via text message or old-school WAP browsers, for example. The downside, of course, is that they would have to pay for each check-in. For apps like roadside assistance, teenage monitoring, or fraud detection where people are willing to pay or there are cost savings involved in knowing someone’s exact location immediately, it might be worth it.
For smartphone app developers, the geo-fencing API might be worth a look. It helps reduce the battery drain for geo apps running in the background. On Android and Blackberry, for instance, not a lot geo apps take advantage of the background processing because it kills the battery in a few hours. Location Labs looks at the RF signals to figure out when to request new geo-information instead of asking all the time. If you are a mobile app developer who tries out these APIs, please let others know your thoughts below in comments.