Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Guide to Anywhere, Right in Your Hand

location based services

JUST off the plane in Columbus, Ohio, you have a craving for Italian food. You hop into your rental car and drive straight to Buca di Beppo on North Front Street, where supersize pasta dishes are served family style.
You knew exactly where to go even though you’ve never been to Columbus, even though you don’t know anyone in Columbus, even though you didn’t bother to do a bit of research on Italian restaurants before you set out for Columbus.
All the information you needed was three clicks away on your cellphone thanks to Earthcomber, one of several new services designed to make browsing the Web easier on your cellphone, BlackBerry or other mobile device. These so-called location-based services are trying to revamp the Web experience to be less cumbersome on mobile devices, freeing users from what has been a pretty dismal experience involving lots of typing, scrolling and waiting.
The new services, with names like Mobio and Where, are aimed at anyone with a mobile device that can connect to the Internet. But the kind of online information they are making available on cellphones, BlackBerrys and other devices can be of particular use to travelers.
After downloading the application onto a phone, as you would a cellphone ring tone, a user can enter a city or a ZIP code and, in very few clicks, find the cheapest nearby gas station, locate a good restaurant, find an ATM or a Wi-Fi hot spot, call a cab, view movie times and more.
Say you’re driving around San Francisco and you suddenly realize you’re running low on gas. With Mobio, offered free at Getmobio.com, you can select the Mobio icon on your phone and choose “cheap gas” to pull up a list of nearby gas stations. Earlier this month, the Arco station on Fell Street at Divisadero, with gasoline for $3.35, was at the top of the list.
Looking for something fun to do in a new city? Choose Stepping Out and Events to get a list of local concerts, comedy shows and other happenings, including maps showing how to get to them. Need a cab? Select Panic Kit and Cabs for a list of local taxi and car services. Then go to the Option menu and select Click to Call to be connected.
Where, a subscription service from uLocate Communications, based in Framingham, Mass., takes the concept a step further. Instead of requiring that the user type in a city or ZIP code, Where works with G.P.S. phones to find its users and automatically provide information — everything from the weather to where to find the world’s largest ball of twine. The service, available in early June at www.where.com for $2.99 a month on 17 different Sprint phones, plans to expand within months to other carriers and phones.
Earthcomber users with G.P.S. phones don’t have to plug in ZIP codes either. And those with Palm and Windows software on their mobile devices have another nifty feature. They can have automatic alerts sent to them when they pass by something of interest. Users first set up a profile online, preferably from a computer, picking and choosing from a list of favorites or “look lists” they might want to find while out and about — from banks to art galleries to wildlife areas. They can also search for special interests and add those to the lists. For example, if you have a Palm Treo, adding minigolf to your favorites with the distance range of five miles, should ensure you get an audible alert every time you are near a minigolf course. “I wanted it not just to find the needs and interests you stop to look for,” Jim Brady, president of Earthcomber, wrote in an e-mail message, “but to eliminate the ‘shoulda’ syndrome. You know: ‘Oh, you were in Cincinnati? You were just __ blocks from the most incredible __.”
The new location-based services are part of a big race to push the Internet — and all the advertising, sales and information it entails — onto cellphone screens. Just about every company with a Web presence, from Google and Yahoo to travel sites like Orbitz.com and Kayak.com, has been adapting certain services or search capabilities for mobile devices.
“All big brands want to extend their franchise into mobile,” said J. Gerry Purdy, a mobile analyst at the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Because of that, he added, “We’re going to see these handheld devices get much more useful.”
Most location-based services mainly offer information, like local weather, events and places of interest. But their goal is ultimately to allow users to conduct transactions in just one or two steps as well — making restaurant reservations, for example, booking hotels, or changing flights. Mobio, for one, already allows users not just to find movie show times but also to buy the tickets from certain theaters using a mobile phone through Mobile Movie Times, available at www.getmobio.com/landings/universal.
For now, location-based service companies are being careful not to turn users off with ads, even though advertising provides the main revenue for services that are free to users. Those that do include ads try to display them only during the time it takes to connect to the Internet or in context — offering a coffee coupon, for instance, when a user searches for the nearest Starbucks.
“They don’t bother me at all,” Rahul Gilani, a 24-year-old from Long Island, said of the ads on Mobio, which he recently downloaded. While commuting on the train to work, he found the service helpful in researching restaurants for a summer trip to Las Vegas. The ads “just go into the background,” he said. “I know this is how they’re able to provide the service for me.”
With companies only beginning to adapt to mobile devices, expect some bugs. Most location-based services tend to work only with certain phones and certain carriers. Mobio, for example, works on only 50 phones linked to Sprint and Cingular, though the company says it will soon work for Verizon and T-Mobile customers as well. And when it quietly began to offer service to BlackBerry users a few weeks ago there was a glitch in the system that prevented users from typing in the number 0, which rendered certain ZIP code searches useless. (It has since been fixed.)
The services are generally only as good as the partners each company works with to provide the information. Earthcomber, for example uses CitySearch to provide its restaurant information. Where offers “widgets” or clickable icons that offer information directly from a variety of partners from Burger King to Eventful, which lists concerts, art exhibits and other events. Mobio’s Cheap Gas feature uses information from Gaspricewatch.com, a searchable database of gasoline prices submitted by real people. Eventually, Mobio plans to allow users to update gas prices to the Web site from their mobile phones.
“That way the entire community benefits,” said Ramneek Bhasin, the founder and chief executive of Mobio.
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