Are location geeks at Where 2.0 off the path to real money?

Location Geeks

Walking around the hallways at the Where 2.0 Conference today I met tons of developers doing some very interesting things with location, but they seem to be stuck in a mode where they think where you are right now is all that matters. The photo here is of Where 2.0 organizer Brady Forrest (left) and Mike Pegg, who works on Google’s location API team.

Look at organizer Brady Forrest’s blog from today about what the big conversations are or look at NextWeb’s report about one of the coolest startups to come out of the geo space, SimpleGeo. Everyone is talking about how to better display data about what is happening right now. Or what happened yesterday.

Actually where I am right now is pretty damn boring stuff. I’m upstairs typing on my iMac. Does that help anyone have a good experience? No. Because it’s 1 a.m. and I can’t meet with you, so having a meeting right now isn’t gonna be a good outcome. I’m also home in Half Moon Bay and most of you are somewhere else. Is some business happy if I check in right now on Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl, or Brightkite? No. They are all closed so they can’t offer me anything to get me to visit them. Not that I would at 1 a.m. anyway.

Would seeing what I did yesterday (along with thousands of other people) be interesting, as new company SimpleGeo says it would be? I found it really isn’t. Nothing that happened yesterday is as interesting as what we’re going to do in the future. This is why I am such a big supporter of Plancast, which lets me plan out my major events.

But there is no Plancast for location and very few people are thinking about that, at least based on my discussions with Gowalla, Foursquare, Google, and other developers working on location-based features.

Opportunity lost all the way around. Here’s why:

What am I doing right now that you, brands, my family, my coworkers, etc all would be VERY interested in?

I’m planning a trip to Israel. Just bought our tickets. That was last night’s chore.

Tonight? Starting to think about what startups I want to see, what hotels I need to get, what touristy things I want to do. I have tons of events that have already been decided for me, too, like Yossi Vardi’s Kinnernet camp, or the Marker Conference, one of Israel’s tech conference, or a party at the Garage Geeks. They are all in Google Calendar.

But I keep looking around for a good way to plan my life around location. One that hooks two-way into Google Calendar. I haven’t found it yet.

First, let’s go to Google and see what’s out there. I type “trip planning” into Google and what comes up? Lots of trip planners, but they all are pretty sucky when compared to the UI goodness of Gowalla or the location utility of Foursquare (as much as I am beating on them in this post, they both are improving my life, just think of how interesting these would be to use if I could say “I plan to check in here in the future” and it could build a map and experiences for me.

There’s Rand McNally. Oh, it’s for a roadtrip. Israel? Plus, it forces you to work in the way IT wants you to work.

TripIt? I love TripIt, but it’s not for mapping out your trip to a foreign country. It’s good for sending your emails from flight carriers like United to, though, and it will tell you a bunch of stuff about your trip. Useful, but I want something that lets me plot my trip on a Map.

How about NextStop? NextStop is close. It has places, it has maps, it has interactivity. What doesn’t it have? A timeline and integration with Google Calendar. For instance, look at this guide to places to visit in Barcelona. That’s pretty cool, but I need to plan out my calendar and let you know that I’ll be in spot #4 at 2 p.m. on Sunday. No real way to do that here.

How about Dopplr? Dopplr is cool if you are a social media geek because you can see who else will be in Tel Aviv during a trip there, but it doesn’t hook into Google Calendar, so doesn’t help me keep my schedule.

How about Pageonce, which lets you see data from United Airlines and add your Google accounts? So far it’s not close to what would be useful.

So why am I rambling on?

Because of two apps, one of which I saw last night at SF’s iPhone App Showcase: Address Assistant. The other is Siri, which we’ve covered before, but has raised my expectations of what an app can and should do.

On the surface, Address Assistant is pretty lame. You add it to your Google Calendar (yes, you have to give them your Gmail password, I already yelled at them about that but I did it anyway).

Then it does something very simple: it adds contact information into my calendar. So, I did a Calendar item that said “visit Orli Yakuel” who lives in Tel Aviv and it put all her info into the calendar item.

Why is that important? Well, now let’s take it a step further. I also use Gist, which shows me all sorts of social data about Orli, like what is her Twitter address, how many times have I sent her email, what’s her Facebook address, and a ton of other things.

OK, now look at what the system knows.

1. Google Calendar knows I’m visiting her on May 4 and attending her Techonomy event.
2. Plancast knows I’ll be at that event, and even has a map and knows other attendees.
3. Gist knows all about Orli and if Orli put her physical address into that, it would know that too.
4. Plancast also knows that I’m going to TEDx in TelAviv and Yossi Vardi’s Kinnernet Camp.
5. United.com, TripIt, and Pageonce all know my flight information.
6. NextStop knows that I searched on TelAviv and clicked on several items to read them.
7. Google knows I searched on “Jerusalem tours” and other terms.

What don’t ANY of these systems do? They don’t let me see my schedule on a map.

Opportunity lost.

Now, what if I could say to a map system like Google Maps “map out April 26-May5?”

Already Google Calendar has tons of information about where I’ll be and at what times and using a technology like what Address Assistant or Gist is doing, it could get quite accurate information about addresses, dates, times. It could then ask me how granular I wanted to get.

Let’s say there was a time slider along the bottom of the map. So I could slide from Tuesday morning to Tuesday afternoon to Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning to Wednesday afternoon and so on and so forth.

Let’s say I saw that I laid out my schedule badly, because I had us traveling from one side of Tel Aviv to the next. Could I just drag my appointments around on the map and reorder their schedules? Could that tell Google Calendar “things have changed?”

What’s my business justification for doing such a system?

Well, I just spent thousands of dollars on flights (Rocky and I are both going) and I’m about to spend thousands of dollars on hotels for the 10 days I’ll be there.

Advertisers can influence my purchases RIGHT NOW for a trip that won’t happen for a month.

Can they do that on Foursquare or Gowalla? No way. Google Latitude? No way. Google Buzz? No way.

It’s amazing to me that the Google Mapping team hasn’t shipped this already. Think of the billions of dollars in unsatisfied intent they are leaving on the table.

Could Facebook ship this? I doubt it.

Twitter? I doubt it.

Could Foursquare or Gowalla do it? Absolutely, but the check-in gesture these two are stuck on isn’t really appropriate. It’s more of a “I want to check in here at a future date” gesture.

Could such a system be useful when I head around TelAviv with Foursquare or Gowalla? Absolutely. It could notice that I am checking in on time according to my pre-planned schedule and could give me a badge for that. Or it could notice that I’m way off of my plan, and offer to renegotiate my afternoon commitments (as happens, maybe someone like Yossi or Orli kept us too long at lunch, or maybe we got caught in unplanned traffic).

What else could it do, though?

Well, we could leave wildcard spots open. For instance, let’s look at my plan for tomorrow. I have to meet Eric Ries in San Francisco at 9 a.m. The system should know I have to drive from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco. Can I leave 15 minutes for a coffee stop? Can the system use Siri to negotiate with the APIs from those coffee shops as to what is going to be the cheapest cup of coffee I could get? Sure!

Or, when I leave Eric’s place I’ll have an hour free for lunch. Could it use Foursquare to see what location between Eric’s house and my house has the most friends right now? Sure! Could it use Yelp to find the best reviewed fast-food restaurant on the way home? Sure! Could it hook up with Waze to warn me that someone has reported a traffic accident on the way home? Sure!

All of these are ways for businesses to advertise, negotiate with you over terms (Yelp already does this with its offers from businesses near you and so does Foursquare, it’s just that both of those systems only know about my location right before I get there if they are relying on the “check in” gesture). But I already know I will be in San Francisco next Monday and I will be in Tel Aviv on April 27th. Why can’t those same restaurants be pitching me now?

The focus on “here we are now” (or worse, games, like all the leaders are using) is leading the location based service industry down a path away from the real money and away from real utility and that’s a damn shame.

Or, do you think I’m headed down the wrong path? Let’s talk about it. I’ll show up on Google Buzz, Facebook, or on my blog’s own comments to discuss the location industry further.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

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