In association with heise online

15 May 2013, 15:55

Location, location, location

by Glyn Moody

The rapid rise in the number of mobile devices has led to a concomitant rise in the amount of location data available. Proprietary services are emerging to take advantage of that data, but open source has a strong foothold in the form of OpenStreetMap.

Here's the biggest internet company you may never have heard of:

Alibaba Group is a privately owned Hangzhou-based family of Internet-based E-Commerce businesses that cover business-to-business online marketplaces, retail and payment platforms, shopping search engine and data-centric cloud computing services. In 2012, two of Alibaba’s portals together handled 1.1 trillion yuan ($170 billion) in sales, more than competitors eBay and Amazon combined.

And here's what it did last week:

AutoNavi announced that the company and several entities affiliated with Alibaba Group have agreed to form a strategic alliance to jointly explore and develop location-based e-commerce opportunities. In addition, AutoNavi announced that the parties have entered into definitive agreements whereby Alibaba, through a wholly owned subsidiary, will invest approximately $294M in newly issued preferred and ordinary shares of the company, representing approximately 28% of the company’s total issued and outstanding shares on a fully-diluted basis.

AutoNavi is a mapping company:

Its mapping app, which competes with those of Google, Baidu [the leading search engine in China] and others, is hugely popular and passed 100 million downloads in January. Research firm Analysys ranks the firm at the top of China’s mapping space, with 45 percent market share.

Meanwhile, over in the US, Yahoo has also been getting out the chequebook:

Yahoo on Friday acquired Loki Studios, according to an announcement on the location-based gaming company’s website. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but this appears to be another acqui-hire, meaning Yahoo is more interested in the employees than the actual firm.

Loki Studios was co-founded by Computer Science students from Stanford University. It focused on “combining engaging game design with the features unique to the next generation of mobile devices.”

Finally, here's an interesting rumour that's floating around:

Facebook reportedly is in talks to buy a popular Israeli-based crowd-sourced mapping and traffic app.

Waze offers a socially based traffic and navigation app for iOS and Android. Users share real-time traffic information, including updates about construction, traffic jams, speed traps and accidents.

So, what do all these have in common? Simple: location, location, location.

This is the next wave of software, driven by the rapid rise of mobile devices. For desktop systems, your location is essentially fixed, and you only need to set a few parameters like locale and language once. With mobile devices, you are, by definition, always on the move. That means your geographical and social context is changing constantly: you want to know about nearby stations or airports and the transport that is available there; you care about where your friends are, because you might be only a few hundred metres away from some of them; you want to know what is happening back at home and ahead of you on your travels. All of these require a new generation of programs that simply did not exist on the desktop.

This is great news for free software, because Android, which is mostly free, is becoming the new Windows for the mobile age (even down to the viruses, alas). Increasingly, people will develop first for Android smartphones and tablets, then for other proprietary devices like the iPhone and iPad, and maybe for minor platforms like the Blackberry or Windows (who...?) But it turns out that the rise of location as the key new factor for computing is even better news for free software than you might think, thanks to the existence and growing success of the OpenStreetMap project.

Here's how it describes itself:

OpenStreetMap is a free, editable map of the whole world. Unlike proprietary datasets like Google Map Maker, the OpenStreetMap license allows free access to the full map dataset. This massive amount of data can be downloaded in full, but also is available in immediately-useful forms like maps and commercial services.

The main way that users participate in OpenStreetMap is by editing the map. With a free user account, you can make improvements to the map that fix issues and add data for everyone. Some users take GPS units on walks, drives, or cycling trips to record tracks that can then be imported to OpenStreetMap. Others help out by tracing roads and features they find in satellite imagery into the map.

Next page: The OpenStreetMap opportunity

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