Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Engage in Location-based Application War

Not that long ago, I thought of the idea of Location-based Message Board (LaMB), where people could tag their message / tweet / status at a specific location. LaMB could retrieve location-based information from Wikipedia, Flickr, Google Local Search, Wikimapia, Yelp, TripAdvisor and etc. The idea is cool and useful (and the technology and hardware is available to support such application), and I was so excited about it.

After a few hours of research and googling, I found a handful of competitors doing location-based application: Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite, Rummble and Flook. It’s common to find a few startups with million dollars funding venturing into the latest buzz; but there is a bigger hidden threat: Google. Google Map itself is slowly (but definitely) expanding its location-based information layers such as Wikipedia, Photo (from Panorama), Webcams, Real Estate, Hotel Prices, Navigation, Bicycle Route, etc. I am sure it’s just a matter of time before there integrate with all the information sources I mentioned above; and eventually with their own location-based messaging plus integration with Twitter, Foursquare and Gowalla. In fact, they are probably already doing it with Google Wave.

Under such heavy “threats” from heavy-weight players, where does small application developer stand? How can we carve out a niche in this new yet crowded battlefield?

Integration is the Key to Survival
Google is definitely the main threat here, as I have to be careful in choosing the right technology and approach to avoid being crushed (or become irrelevant) by standing in the way of this Internet Behemoth. In terms of Technology, I think there is a need to embrace Google Maps (duh!), Google Friend Connect and probably Google Wave (Information Collaboration, crucial for crowd-sourcing information and could potentially influence the platform used on Wikipedia and Wikimapia in the future). As part of Information Broadcast and Messaging, there is a need to integrate with Google Buzz, Facebook and Twitter. There are so many technology and platform to integrate with, and we haven’t even starting to build our actual application.

How to make our application useful, unique and avoid being crushed by others easily? We probably need some niche and less than conventional fun factor built in.

Go Local
For starter, we could target local (Malaysia) information. Though the potential market could be smaller, but we might have the best compilation of local information. We might need to compile useful local information such as Travel, Food, Event and Property which might not be widely available yet. We might need to generate this information, thus controlling the source and be the local information provider as well. Global players might be slow to conquer Malaysia (thus giving us some head start), and might not be attentive to be local needs and culture.

Fun Factor
Not only the application needs to be useful, it needs to be fun as well. Some players already integrated some simple games into application such as earning badges, dropping virtual items and promotion to become mayor. Messaging could be addictive is well, but it’s too common and available on multiple platform.

There is an interesting game about Monopoly on Google Map, which is quite interesting and with some good potential (too bad the game got shutdown after a while). Perhaps there is a potential for civilization, risk or tower defense kind of game on Google Map; or an RPG roaming the hidden map on Earth!

Jack of All Trades Symptom
Sometimes we might try to do too much on a single platform. We try to do messaging, information aggregation and game at the same time; and we might end up being average in everything.

I think we should focus with some useful in the beginning, and think of ways to make it fun and engaging eventually.

Our Approach
Do we want to be a mobile application (like Foursquare and Gowalla), or do we prefer to be a location-based information center (like Google Map itself)? Do we wanted to be like a social network (like Facebook), or do we take the path of public information aggregator (like Google search)? At this moment, most location-based player took the path of mobile application (you need to be physically be at the location, authenticated by your mobile device) and thus physical games is possible; and there is a tendency to be more social network-like. For every path chosen, there are bound to be gains and sacrifices (duh!).

I would prefer the path of public information accessible from anywhere and anyhow (either mobile application or notebook at home). The more I try to protect my turf by restricting the user or control the out flowing of information, the less likely I would get public acceptance and prevail in the long run. This is not the age of selfish game, as information could be attained from multiple sources and platform; thus we need to be as widely and easily available as possible.

At the end, we wanted to be the platform to a whole load of location-based information and messages, while making the tool as usable as possible.

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