The release of the new Apple iPhone 3G has turned up the volume of the discussion about geo-location opportunities quite a bit.
Geo-location, for those not already familiar with it, is the same technology that powers GPS systems in cars, only now it's beginning to proliferate on cell phones. Download a free software application, and you can access GPS satellites to always know where you are. The flipside of that equation, and the place where all the excitement lies, is that others can know where you are as well.
This nascent industry is just beginning to grapple with the huge privacy issues that come along with this technology, but for the moment, it's a fascinating playground for all sorts of software and information companies. While numerous software companies are rushing out the expected social networking applications so that users can, for example, find out what bars their friends are at (who would ever have thought "GPS" might one day come to mean "Group Partying Software"?), information applications to date are much more sophisticated and interesting.
There are of course dozen of pundits breathlessly talking about all the advertising opportunities that will emerge from geo-location, almost always involving companies selling this new form of high tech advertising to local retailers. Of course, these are the same local retailers that yellow pages publishers are still trying to convince to establish a minimal web presence in 2008.
In the mean time, some of the data applications of geo-location look a lot more promising. Consider a New York City start-up called Sense Networks. It gives cell phone users a free software application called CitySense that gives users all sorts of social networking functionality. But on the back-end, it aggregates all the positional data it collects for highly sophisticated B2B applications such as store site location planning, retail competitive intelligence, even trend data on what stores and restaurants are doing well that hedge funds are attempting to use for an investment edge. Another company called Path Intelligence is doing something similar in the U.K. Microsoft has recently launched a service called Clearflow that uses similar technology to report traffic congestion in real-time and offer the best alternate routes. Inrix, a Microsoft spin-off, also offers traffic data, based in part on geo-location technology.
The data opportunities in geo-location look to be huge, with particular advantage for those who jump in sooner rather than later, because it's rapidly becoming clear that historical data for comparative purposes is going to be very valuable in this business. Ever better, data applications in geo-location tend to focus on aggregate data, meaning no need to wrestle with complex privacy issues.