Mobile location services: Don't ruin the pending revolution

A decade ago, mobile marketing poisoned location services; today, there's a chance to resurrect them

In all the hullaballoo about what the next iPhone may bring, whether RIM has lost its mind with the PlayBook tablet, and how Google plans to herd the many Android cats into a cohesive platform -- plus, all the FUD on mobile security and management promulgated by dozens of vendors -- lost is the notion of location-based services. Known by the acronym LBS, such services hold amazing potential for newfound utility from mobile computing -- if the industry doesn't kill it off first.

Mobile marketers almost sunk location services a decade ago, in that false spring of WAP and (promised but not delivered) 3G networks. They viewed location information as a great way to pummel people with ads and other come-ons, but the nightmare proposition of cell phones beeping every few seconds with a new promo as you walked in a mall or drove down a freeway scared off early adopters and got the civil liberties folks in a (righteous) uproar. It could happen again, if companies latch onto the kind of abusive services for which Facebook is infamous.

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Even if the industry is more careful, a lot of what makes location services cool also makes them creepy. For example, at a recent conference, a CIO said he'd love it if his employees broadcast their location via smartphone. That way, if colleagues were at the same airport they could find each other, or if a person were not at her desk, the system would know and be able to forward phone calls or respond with an "away" prompt.

However, such location awareness would also let the manager see where the employee was at nights and on weekends. Sure, you could turn off the locator app -- but remembering to do so is an easy step to miss. Many employers already spy on employees this way; it's standard practice in the delivery industry to monitor each vehicle to make sure drivers don't goof off while on their rounds, as well as to see if they're speeding, taking time- and fuel-efficient routes, and so on. It is Big Brotherish, but at least the tracking is of the vehicle, so when the employees aren't on duty, they're not trackable.

In an era when personal smartphones and tablets are used for business -- and vice versa -- as is becoming increasingly common among knowledge workers and sales staff, the issues of being trackable and when that's OK are messy and off-putting.

The same location detection that lets me find the nearest store with a better price for an item I just scanned on my iPhone can let retailers know where I am so that they can spam me. The same location detection that lets an Android smartphone give me directions to a client's address can allow my boss to follow my movements.

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