Saturday, December 01, 2007

My Location: Google is Not Always Watching Me over the Airwaves

Google surprised us again this week with yet another bold announcement. With My Location Mobile Maps will be able to tell you where you are. But fear not, big-brother or stalker phoebes. In contrast to Google’s free WiFi service, Mobile Maps has made the very intelligent decision to not bother to know where you are. All My Location knows is an arbitrary identification number (not your MDN, which is your seven digit phone number) that is associated with your mobile device.

The challenge for operators is that whether their LBS platforms provide anonymity or not, it will be difficult for them to shake off the perception that they do not. The network knows the MDN associated with the device; the MDN is associated with the account. The account not only holds information about the identity of the subscriber, but even other facts such as mailing address and credit card number.

Google’s announcement also sparked new discussions about how the carriers ought to release LBS APIs that application developers can take advantage of. This only speaks for the U.S. operators’ inability to effectively educate the media. After all, as I have posted before, some operators do have open (or semi-open, depending on whether economics are part of the definition) APIs. So here is a quick snapshot of carrier supported LBS APIs for developers:

Verizon Wireless

Right now Mobile Maps is limited to smart devices such as Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian. However, in America it is feature phones that occupy the largest footprint today. So why doesn’t Google take advantage of the semi-open API’s provided by operators? Hmm… perhaps they will soon… Or perhaps the economics get a little murky since operators impose revenue share models on subscriptions to on-deck applications. To make things even more complicated, with Brew operators a third party is also involved: Qualcomm. In contrast, Google’s model is based on advertising, which means giving the service away for free. So perhaps with a little creativity, and suppression of egos, all players could come to friendly terms that would ultimately benefit us, the end users.

Regardless of how this will pan out, the truth is Google’s is definitely a good long term strategy; eventually most, if not all, devices will be open smart devices.

I end this post with the real question that I have: will Google make Mobile Maps open like its online counterpart some day?

(Here is a good interview with the Google Maps product manager, Steve Lee).


  1. Got a clarification that My Location does supported some feature phones, such as Motorola

  2. How they did it...

    They obtain the CellsiteID from the device through the Google Maps client application. Over time they have been recording the maps users look up along with the associated cellsite ID at the time the map download takes place. The theory is that the majority of the time end users search for maps of the location they happen to be at.

    Once Google Maps compiles a statistically significant amount of data they do a correlation of map versus cellsite ID. Over time this guesstimate promises to get more and more accurate.

    The use of cellsite ID is not new to the space. Other applications such as Yahoo’s Zone Tag use this. There are also companies that collect cellsite ID’s and map them to their actual address and later sell (or even give away) access to this information.

    From my view point the use of cellsite ID’s can be risky. Until now exposure of this ID by the device lower stack to the application has gone undetected by the mobile operators. I am almost certain that in some cases this has not been deliberate. It would be very easy for any of the carriers to request OEM’s to block this ID.