Product Placement: Location-Aware Mobile Apps Go Mainstream

By J. BONASIA, INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY

Working with Curtis Lee is a little like having a real estate agent on call anytime day or night, ready to steer you to nearby homes for sale, anywhere you happen to be.

At least his app is.

Using mobile-phone software licensed from Smarter Agent, clients of the 45-year-old agent, who works for Prudential Zack Shore Properties in Manahawkin, N.J., can see nearby homes for sale on their GPS-enabled phones.

The software maps out home sales, complete with photos and all other listing information.

With a touch of the screen, customers can contact Lee to arrange a tour.

“Now I am riding around in my clients’ pockets 24-hours a day,” Lee said.

“Location, location, location,” has long been a mantra in real estate circles. Thanks to ubiquitous global-positioning chips, always-on data and smarter software, that refrain may soon echo in board rooms of all sorts of industries.

“We’re just getting started with this era,” said William Clark, an analyst for research firm Gartner.

The firm predicts that mobile phones will overtake personal computers by 2013 as the most common device for accessing the Web worldwide.

Most mobile phones sold today have location-tracking features, as required for emergency 911 calls. And nearly all smart phones sold in the last three years have a built-in GPS to more precisely get one’s bearings.

That means advertisers can for the first time take a potential customer’s physical whereabouts into account when deciding how — or if — to target the person. Users, meanwhile, can create their own settings and social networks to reach trusted sources of information around the clock.

Making Connections

“When people carry around a device wherever they go, it’s not just a phone but a set of connections to their online identity, friends and networks — and the content they care about and where they are as well,” said Mark Donovan, a mobile-industry analyst for market tracker comScore.

Unlike Web browsing, in which users must actively choose to share and upload information, location-aware devices can broadcast key information about the user automatically.

That makes mobile computing a true two-way exchange of data, Donovan said.

Think of it as a node of the Internet in motion, with mobile phone users broadcasting their preferences to the world while filtering out unwanted data or services.
“There’s this idea for the phone as a companion that’s essentially your digital assistant,” Clark said. “It keeps track of everywhere you’ve been, and all your browser interactions and every search.”

Numerous location-based consumer apps have popped up in recent months, Foursquare and Gowalla among the most popular.

Foursquare is a location-based social network that lets users see where their friends are hanging out.

Users “check in” when they arrive at a physical site, alerting others in their network.

Checking In

Those who check in most frequently each month earn points toward the goal of being named “mayor” of the establishment, and earn virtual “badges.” Businesses can use the information to reward their most loyal customers and generate word-of-mouth advertising.

Gowalla operates in a similar vein, letting users find and share new places and events with friends to get rewards.

Other in the same category include Whrrl.com and Loopt.com.

Popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, are adding features that let users more easily let friends know where they are.

Access to Facebook through a mobile Web browser grew 112% over the past year, according to comScore. And Twitter, which began as a mobile-based service, has experienced a 347% jump in mobile traffic since early 2009.

Google (GOOG) is getting into the game with a new feature called Latitude for its mapping service and location features in Buzz, its social-networking push.
Google Goggles, which fetches information about photos taken on phones running its Android software, can even get a fix on users’ location from pictures of famous landmarks.

Reality, Improved

Netherlands-based Layar offers a so-called “augmented reality” app. Like the futuristic heads-up displays featured in science-fiction films such as “Iron Man” and “The Terminator,” a phone running Layar can show users an enhanced version of what its camera sees, beefed up with real-time information such as business hours of a nearby store or the historical significance of a building.

Verizon Communications (VZ) showed off Layar to promote its latest Droid phones in a recent TV commercial.

Hoover’s, a unit of Dun & Bradstreet (DNB), launched a location-aware app for business users in March called Near Here. The Apple (AAPL) iPhone app lets salespeople quickly find prospects in their vicinity.

Sales reps can gather data about a prospect’s company, along with maps for locations.

The search area can be adjusted by moving the map or changing the search address.

Custom filters can then be saved for future searches.

Near Here helps when a sales lead in an unfamiliar city abruptly cancels a meeting, says Lindsay Duran, Hoover’s mobile products marketing manager.

“Say you have five hours to kill, but you don’t want to waste the whole day or the trip,” Duran said. “This service allows you to do targeted prospecting in the palm of your hand, and get the names of the people at that location and any other relevant background info.”

The market for mobile apps on smart phones is growing by 250% annually and is expected to top $4.1 billion this year, according to research firm IDC. Many of those applications offer location-based and social networking features.

But Will It Pay?

Such rapid changes are sure to evolve over the next few years, says analyst Clark.

Telecom carriers and service providers that can add the most useful context around users’ location stand to win in this coming age of context-aware mobile computing, he says.

Advertising will be the trend’s big moneymaker, says comScore’s Donovan, though just how big the market will get isn’t clear.

For Lee, the real estate agent, a single sales lead recouped Smarter Agent‘s $600 annual fee. He referred a Long Branch, N.J., condominium that sold for $168,000 to another agent — earning a $703 commission.

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