Coming soon to a mall near you…

With Christmas and New Year celebrations fresh in mind, I take this opportunity to explore how future location-based services can help with the rather busy and tedious task of ‘Christmas Shopping’ (or any shopping for that matter). In this blog, I will use this as an example to illustrate how mobile location services could be greatly improved to exploit the obvious commercial potential that location-based services can offer to both the mobile user as a consumer and the retailing industry in general.

Like most people living in Western Europe, my Christmas shopping involved a combination of ‘On-line’, ‘High Street’ and ‘Shopping Mall’ purchases; I also had the opportunity to spread the shopping between London and Stockholm. During this period, I experimented with some of the popular mobile phone apps with location services such as Facebook Places, Foursquare and O2 Moments with the hope that these apps would improve my shopping experience in terms of cheap deal offers, item recommendations, assistance etc. As much as the apps helped in keeping me informed of my friends’ locations and of many promotional offers around my location, I found that the apps were too focussed on the social networking experience. What I, as a consumer, really needed from these apps was however not readily available. As a consumer, I needed my digital footprint (mobile and desktop computer generated data such as location, browsing, social networking etc.) to be harnessed and fused to offer intelligent and personalised services that can be used when I embark on my shopping ventures.

So what/how should future location-based services look like to fulfil expectations and exploit mass-market potentials?

Before I proceed with the description, it is important to note the implicit assumption that the user gives the permission for his/her data to be used. A detailed Privacy discussion is beyond the scope of this blog but in general, I find that most people are happy to have their data used provided that the following basic contract is agreed between the user and the service provider:

• That true value is offered in exchange (and agreed upon prior to data collection).
• That the data is collected for a purpose, used for that purpose and then destroyed once it no longer serves the purpose.
• That the user is constantly informed about the data kept about them and the processes applied to it.

It may sound plain and obvious, from both sides of the ‘contract’, but in reality neither implementations nor user perceptions satisfy all the criteria.

Future location-based services must rely on a combination of innovative concepts with far greater flexibility and capabilities than those of a single phone app. The reflections below are not intended to give a full specification but rather touch on some of the key aspects that I think will make a difference. It’s also worth noting that most of the core technologies involved already exist in some form, they just need to be reapplied from a different perspective.

Indoor Location
Using my Christmas shopping example, my mobile should be able to log every store (indoors or outdoors) I walk into (and if it’s a large store such as IKEA, the various sections or aisles that I visit should also be logged). The stores that I visited should have the means to know that I visited them and possibly log the items that I purchased from them at that time (not difficult to achieve if mobile payments are in use).

Digital Activity Tracking
In my example, I browsed various items from different outlets such as Amazon, eBay, Facebook Marketplace etc. I also booked flights to travel to London. For an enhanced service, future location-based services should be able to tap into my digital activity and build a picture of what I could need or where I could be, in a similar way to a top-end personal assistant. The purpose of tracking my digital activity and utilising it in location-based services would be to match my behaviour and movements with relevant retailers in such a way that I don’t feel spammed or intruded upon but instead feel assisted and guided.

Data Fusion
For the entire system to work there needs to be some means of aggregating the data, adapting it and constructing a personalised service. As an example, let’s say that the day before I travelled to London, I visited Stockholm Kravatt (a tie store) but didn’t buy any ties. Future location-based services should be intelligent enough to check for attractive deals (or even broker a deal) at Tie Rack at Heathrow airport and suggest it to me upon arrival.

We will get there!
The system that would enable location-based services will rely on innovative concepts that will make it more than just a social network-based app. Some of the technology heavyweights such as Google and Apple have, in the past, demonstrated their ability to design and market large software ecosystems. To nurture this with enabling technologies and service ideas, there is a countless amount of smaller innovative companies (and we’ve seen many of them) just waiting to get their 15 minutes; So there is no shortage of brains to seize the opportunity. I therefore hope that in the next couple of Christmases, I will be able to rely on my phone to help me find the gifts I want from the most convenient location and at the right price. Industry, please help me out!

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