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Who Will Provide the 'Location' In Location-Based Services?

Google's VP of Search Product has shifted roles to take charge of their location services. This is just one more sign of the growing battle over services for locating people and things, with wireless carriers, handset and OS providers, Google, Skyhook, and others in the fray.

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Figure 1 – Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer is an important person at Google. Besides being the first female engineer to join the firm back in the late 90s, Ms. Mayer has headed up their search products efforts, the crown jewel of the firm. She is credited with significant responsibility for the UI of both Google’s Search and Gmail, as well as shaping the design of Google Maps, Google Earth, iGoogle, and more. Ms. Mayer was the youngest women ever to be listed in Fortune magazine’s ‘50 Most Powerful Women’ and was recently made a member of Google's operating committee, the senior most management team in the company. So, when it was announced on October 12, 2010 that Ms. Mayer is now charged with leading Google’s location and local services, it makes a clear statement about the critical importance of those products and that market to Google … and to many of its competitors.

How to Find Someone … Let Me Count the Ways

Figure 2 – One of Google’s Street View Cars

Location-Based Services is a diverse marketplace. There are many different technologies for locating people or things. Usually, locating technology finds a person or thing by locating the cell phone, computer, device, or RFID tag that is associated with that person or thing. These locating capabilities have been driven by legislation, such as E-911, and by market forces, enabled by the rapid evolution and dramatically falling costs of technologies, networks, and services. There are so many different ways to locate, it can be mind boggling.

Mapping WiFi Networks—Google and Skyhook

In conjunction with its overall mapping efforts, Google has been driving vehicles around cities all over the world, taking 360˚ pictures for its Street View capabilities within Google map, but also collecting data about the location of all the WiFi networks it ‘sees’ as they drive around. That data can then be used to determine location. A person's computer or WiFi-enabled cell phone senses what WiFi networks are nearby (it reads the MAC addresses of the wireless access points, if you want to get technical). Then Google’s location services can use that information (i.e. which WiFi networks are nearby) to do a lookup to find what its current location is. 

Skyhook Wireless is a competitor in that space, using a very similar approach. Skyhook claims to provide sub-second ‘time-to-first-fix’ (much faster than GPS) with 20-30 meter accuracy and near 100% availability indoors or in so called ‘urban canyons,’ in which GPS may not work. Skyhook’s database includes more than 100 million access points covering 70 percent of the US and Canadian populations. Skyhook’s free ‘Loki’ application—touted as a ‘virtual GPS’ toolbar that integrates the user’s location with Google Maps,, Fandango, and other web applications—has been replaced by similar tools and SDKs for adding location data to websites like In January, 2008, Apple announced that Skyhook’s WPS (Wi-Fi Positioning System) would be the primary location engine for the iPhone and iPod Touch. However, since April 2010, Apple has been relying on its own location technologies.

The Wireless Carriers

Wireless telecoms providers also want to own this market. They have a number of location approaches utilizing the network or the handset:

  • Cell Identification (a.k.a. Cell-ID, Cell of Origin, COO)—Identifies which cell tower is closest to the phone (usually by signal strength). The accuracy of Cell-ID is poor, ranging from a hundred meters to a few miles. The accuracy can be improved using TA (Timing Advance) or RTT (Round Trip Time) measurements of signal delays or signal jitter combined with the Cell ID.
  • Angle of Arrival (AoA)—Location is calculated by measuring the angle of arrival of the cell phone’s signal to three or more cell towers.
  • Time Difference of Arrival—A form of trilateration, by using the time difference of the arrival of the signal at the nearby towers, the distance to each tower and thereby location can be calculated. There are a couple of different flavors including U-TDOA (Uplink-Time difference of arrival) and TOA (Time of Arrival).
  • E-OTD—Enhanced Observed Time Difference, a version of TDOA used with GSM phones, using measurements made by the phone, rather than the base station.
  • Assisted-GPS (AGPS) and Differential GPS (DGPS)—Uses ground stations to provide more rapid startup (ID which satellites to use), correct for GPS errors caused by the atmosphere/topography, and/or provide fall-back to cell-based methods when GPS satellites are not visible, e.g. indoors or in ‘urban canyons.’
  • Advanced Forward Link Trilateration (AFLT) and Enhanced Forward Link Trilateration (EFLT)—Used with CDMA systems found in the US and a few other countries. Qualcomm provides AGPS and AFLT technologies to system integrators that in turn provide many of these services to the carriers.

Figure 3 – Accuracy of Various Wide-Area Locating Technologies

RTLS/RFID-based Technology

There are also a number of technologies that are based on RFID and/or ‘Real-Time Locating Systems.’ These are generally meant to provide location services within a private site, such as a building (e.g. hospital or manufacturing plant), campus, or yard (e.g. ports, distribution centers). A private network is set up on the site and the objects or people are tracked using RFID/RTLS tags. These technologies use many of the same approaches used in the wide area location capabilities provided by the Telcos described above, such as TDOA, AOA, and WiFi zone mapping. For the most part, these are not direct competition for someone like Google (who is more interested in the wide area/public location markets), but could be indirect competition in the sense that companies may use these services instead of subscribing to a Google location service.


GPS is used in both wide area locating and within a private site. More and more phones have GPS (see Figure 4 below). And the accuracy of GPS keeps getting better and better over time. However, GPS can suffer from slow startup (it takes time to find the right satellites) and the inability to work deep indoors or places where there are too many tall structures (e.g. between skyscrapers), that don’t let it see at least 3 of the satellites from which it calculates location. Both of these weaknesses can be mitigated by the use of hybrid approaches incorporating some of the other technologies, such as Assisted GPS (AGPS). From Google‘s perspective, GPS is just one of the underlying technologies that it uses to determine location. These are for the most part hidden from the location-aware application developer’s perspective by using an API from Google or one of their competitors.

Figure 4 – GPS Penetration in Cellular Handsets

Google’s Location Plans?

This will not be the first or last time that Google challenges the telecommunications companies (as we have previously reported). There is much overlap in the expansion goals of Google vs. the telecommunications carriers.

Google also competes with (and acquires) Location-based Service startups. Google has offered location based service at least since its 2005 acquisition of Dodgeball. That service was replaced in 2009 by Google’s Latitude service, a location aware mobile application that allows cell phone users to let others see where they are. The user can control who can locate them and the accuracy and details that are made available.

In February 2010, Google announced ‘Buzz,’ their content sharing service integrated in Gmail that allows users to publish and share photos, videos and other content. Buzz is integrated into Google mobile applications: It lets users optionally geo-tag their status updates (i.e. tags the status update with the user’s current location, similar to Twitter’s ability to geo-tag a tweet), see a ‘Google place profile’ providing information about the location you are in, and see geo-tagged public and friend updates on Google Map for Mobile. 

Google Product Search for Android added barcode scanning last year, enabling users to scan bar codes in the store and instantly search for product ratings and reviews on the internet. In March, 2010, Google announced a new location-based feature for “Google Product Search for Mobile” that lets users search for products that are available and in stock at stores nearby. Participating retailers include Best Buy, Williams-Sonoma, West Elm, Sears Pottery Barn, and others.

Google’s Mayer is herself a heavy user and fan of Foursquare, a place-based social network that allows users to add ‘spots’ and activities as they visit various locations, tell friends where they are, rate locations, and get points for loyalty. Foursquare to some extent competes with Latitude and Buzz. Interestingly, Foursquare was founded by Dennis Crowley, who was one of the founders of Dodgeball, which was Google’s original location service acquisition (see above). Some are speculating that Google might acquire Foursquare, but that remains to be seen.

In any case, it is obvious that Google is serious about location-based services and has been for quite some time. When Google is serious about anything, competitors and market watchers had better pay attention!

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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