Why LBS is ‘just one aspect’ of context-aware computing

Analyst house Gartner has predicted big things for both location-based services (LBS) and context-aware computing over the next few years, and the rise of geolocation services on the likes of Twitter and Google’s Gmail-based social network Buzz has brought the technology to a wider audience.

So where does LBS end and context-aware computing begin? And what are the real benefits of the technology?

Gartner’s predictions for LBS included a rise in subscribers from 41 million in 2008 to 95.7 million in 2009, with revenues tipped to increase from $998.3m to $2.2bn during the same time period.

The firm defines LBS, also known as location-aware services, as “services that use information about the location of mobile devices, derived from cellular networks, Wi-Fi access points or via satellite links to receivers in (or connected to) the handsets themselves.”

Most users will be familiar with the technology through Google Maps and various smartphone apps, such as Foursquare and Urbanspoon, that can pinpoint a user’s location and find local bars, pubs, cash machines or just about anything that the user desires.

Social network site Twitter has long been looking for ways to integrate more location-based information into its service while Google Buzz makes a big point of the potential of LBS for mobile devices.

“Mobile devices add an important component to sharing: location. Posts tagged with geographical information have an extra dimension of context — the answer to the question “where were you when you shared this?” can communicate so much,” says the firm. “And when viewed in aggregate, the posts about a particular location can paint an extremely rich picture of that place.”

So where does context-aware computing come in? Gartner thinks context information will be a $12bn market by 2012 and defines context-aware computing as the concept of leveraging information about the end user to improve the quality of the interaction, while these services will use details such as social attributes, location, presence and other environmental information.

“LBS is just one aspect of the ‘context’ part of context-aware computing,” says Dharmesh Mistry, CTO/COO at edge IPK. “Context-aware computing is more personal, it knows a bit more about you and can differentiate between weekdays and the weekend and how you use your mobile during those times, rather than just where.”

The potential of context-aware computing, Mistry tells us, is for it to do more of the work for you. “If you have an alarm on your phone to wake you up in the morning to catch a certain train, the context-aware capabilities can link up with the train timetables and wake you up earlier if your train is delayed or cancelled,” he says.

The main uses for context-aware computing are still consumer-oriented but Mistry sees a future for it in the enterprise, particularly in customer-facing roles. “It can help with a single user experience, targeting the customer right up to the point of sale – and what company wouldn’t want that? But we need to get to the stage where the technology does the work for you and at the moment that’s not happening.”

This is an idea Mistry explores in more detail on his blog: “The success of the apps service on Apple’s iPhone shows that individuals are simply looking for useful tools that can help them fill otherwise dead time. Such tools could be games or enterprise apps, but they might be a sales channel to your company – and you need to plan accordingly. Analyse mobile devices, speak to your customers and develop an interface that helps your customers speak to – and buy from – your business.”

Edge IPK’s flagship product, edgeConnect, enables users to build front-end customer services applications without any specific technical know-how. Their clients mainly come from the insurance sector and edge IPK aims to help them embrace the Web 2.0 world.

The technology to enable context-aware computing is there but as Mistry points out, “people don’t really know what its real use is yet – they don’t know that they want it.” The reaction to Google Buzz and some less than kind posts about Foursquare on Twitter suggest that there is a way to go yet before the general public fully embraces this sort of technology on a mass scale. And as we know, where consumers go the enterprise tends to follow, eventually.

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