London-based U.K. startup what3words has set itself the ambitious task of reinventing postcodes/ZIP codes. Instead of a tricky-to-remember string of letters and/or numbers, it’s created three-word sequences that can be more easily memorised and shared. Or that’s the thinking. It launched its three-word location pinpointing service last week, assigning trios of words to the 57 trillion or so 3 meter x 3 meter squares around the globe. The system apparently pinpoints locations to the nearest 2 million, making it more location-specific than a postcode in some more expansive postcode areas. what3words also argues that its system has the benefit of being universal, whereas postcode/ZIP code conventions vary by nation.
It also launched a secondary layer on top of these word trios as its monetisation play last week. Specifically it’s selling the ability to brand a location with a word or character string of your choice. This must be between six and 31 characters, and can include letters, numbers and hyphens — thereby giving brands and retailers the opportunity to buy their brand name. OneWords cost £0.99/$1.50 per year. Today, after its first week of operation, it says it’s managed to sell more than 10,000 OneWords already.
Buyers of OneWords include businesses wanting to be found via a simple keyword search of the map, for example, but it’s also open to individuals to buy in to. “Early buyers include a mix of businesses buying OneWords for their locations, individuals buying OneWords for personal locations and some opportunistic purchasing of interesting words,” CEO Chris Sheldrick tells TechCrunch.
“Our goal is to be for everyone. The need to communicate accurate locations is almost a universal one, so a way to do this better is something that could be used by everyone.”
The OneWord option doesn’t have to be literally a single word — although it can be, such as ‘bicycle’ (above, right) for instance — but can be whatever propriety string the buyer fancies (assuming someone else hasn’t bought it already). Other examples that have apparently already been purchased include ‘johnoffice’ and ‘football’.
what3words’ standard three-word location stamps, which are automatically assigned to all global locations, are far more poetic, if less memorable. Sheldrick says its algorithm typically assigns shorter, easier-to-remember word combinations to more densely populated areas. And vice versa.
Why do people in locations like the U.K. and the U.S. need word-tagged locations when they have GPS on their smartphones and the ability to share a map link or image via SMS or email? That kind of sharing doesn’t work verbally for one thing, says Sheldrick. He also argues that current methods of location sharing are too complex — and are therefore ripe for disruption.
“People just don’t call each other up or email them GPS coordinates, but we think they will do it with something more user-friendly like three words or a OneWord,” he says. “In terms of pinning locations on digital maps — it is very challenging to do this on existing platforms without actually being at the location. Google Maps, for instance, doesn’t make it easy to share a location in the middle of, say, Central Park or Hyde Park to organise a meeting point. Extend this into places like Australia or Africa or rural USA with vast open swathes where people live and work and it becomes more than just a fun tool.”
Asked whether what3words sees the service being especially useful in areas where GPS-enabled smartphones might not be so prevalent, Sheldrick adds: “We see our service being most useful where current methods of describing location (e.g. postcodes or ZIP codes) don’t do the job well enough or don’t do the job at all — but of course it has applications as a preferred alternative even where the existing solutions do a decent job, but perhaps less precise/customised than w3w.”
A key question for what3words is adoption. It’s going to need to get enough people using its map to make its postcode-replacement word trios stick. To that end, it’s lining up an API — which it says will be released “in the coming weeks” — that will allow businesses to integrate what3words into their current IT infrastructures. “Taxi firms, for instance, have already spotted the potential efficiency benefits of enabling customers to use what3words,” it says.
Sheldrick also says it sees the API as a potential source of revenue. “For example, we’re talking to an organisation that works with the emergency services in Australia and they want to be able to receive the location of an incident as 3 words, and integrate that information into their current systems. We are also in talks with a firm in the Middle East — where address systems are notoriously bad, and where online deliveries can take up to 30 days — to hook into w3w to make the delivery side of e-commerce much more functional.”
“Ultimately, we feel that the API integration opportunities will be the most powerful use of the what3words technology — but for this to happen, we feel that it’s essential for our users (and possible API partners) to become familiar with the site and app as standalone entities first,” he adds.
Meanwhile, flogging 10,000+ words isn’t bad going for one week of operation. Although it remains to be seen whether what3words can keep this momentum going after the noise of its launch dies down.