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LBS & tourism through the eyes of a postgrad marketing student in New Zealand.

Monday, March 07, 2005

You mean NZ isn't a dead wasteland for LBS apps?

You know, it's not like New Zealand is a gigantic black hole when it comes to LBS. Successful locative technology firms such as Navman and Electronic Navigation Limited have both originated from this country. Being an island nation, both firms seem to have started out by focusing on marine navigation, but they are branching out into other applications - still mainly b2b (business to business), which is understandable given the cost of these sorts of systems. It's slowly seeping into the consumer electronics realm - Navman personal devices are being sold at Dick Smith Electronics, and more and more people hopping on the telematics bandwagon.

But what about the consumer mobile phone market? How about offering some useful LBS apps to your average mobile phone user without requiring them to fork over a thousand-odd dollars? Well, apparently Vodafone has the answer. Almost everyone on Vodafone NZ (whether prepay or plan) should be able to access some highly rudimentary LBS from their Vodafone menu. But there's a problem, which will soon become apparent via a real, personal demonstration of this service:

1) I take out my Motorola MPx220 (I love this phone) running Windows Mobile 2003, and I press 'Start'.
2) I have to press 'More' three times before I reach the 'Vodafone' menu. I click into it.
3) Here I have five options; I guess that the LBS will be under 'Be Informed', though quite plausibly it could fall under 'Entertain Me'. I stick with 'Be Informed'. Click.
4) Now I have eight options, but the top one is 'Close2U', which seems to be the best bet.
5) Whoa, now I'm presented with ten options, which I'll actually list just to show what kind of services you can look for: ATMs, Fast Food, Petrol Stations, Liquor Outlets, Vending Machines, Car Parks, Taxi Stands, Urgent Pharmacies, Supermarkets, and last but not least, Vdfn (Vodafone) Outlets. It's nearly dinnertime, so I go for 'Fast Food'.
6) Now I get to choose from Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Haven, Pizza Hut, Wendy's and Other Fast Foods. I'm curious about 'Other Fast Foods' so I click that.
7a) A long pause. Then I get an SMS from Vodafone: 'Free from Vdfn: Sorry! Close2U is unable to currently find a listing for Other Fast Foods services. Please try again later.' No worries, I wasn't expecting much anyway... let's try another one.
7b) I go back to the Close2U menu and pick 'Petrol Stations'. This time, after a long pause and another 'this info will be sent to you in a text message', I get two SMSes from Vodafone, giving me some information about my nearest petrol stations, including their addresses, phone numbers, opening hours, and even the types of petrol they offer and whether there is a carwash or not.

My verdict? When it finally worked, it had a cool novelty factor, contained potentially quite useful information, and was more or less accurate (I already knew where my closest petrol stations were and they were duly pointed out by the service). However, the types of services accessible were quite limited, and it took a while to really get any results. Furthermore, I'm not really sure whether this service is freely provided by the Vodafone network, or whether they zapped 50c off my prepay credit for each SMS. I'm assuming it's free, otherwise they would've (I hope) put some sort of disclaimer or warning...

An easy way around the breaking of the 3-click rule problem would be to employ some sort of searching interface (à la Google) and link it with Yellowpages.co.nz to make it both quick and comprehensive. As for augmenting this via direction-giving and mapping, it's quite out of the question for many on the network who are still using Nokia 3310s or ye olde 'brick' Alcatels, phones which are simply not capable of displaying such information. You'd think they'd be completely obsolete by now, but I still have many friends who are using monochromatic, GPRS-less and camera-less mobiles.

Despite the hype about the txting culture surrounding today's youth, money is more likely to be spent on the core services themselves (voice calls, SMS) than on flashy phones, which is probably exactly what Vodafone and Telecom want! New Zealand is no Hong Kong or South Korea; many native Kiwis (i.e. New Zealanders) replace their phone out of necessity, e.g. from theft, loss or having them damaged-beyond-repair, than whim. This is especially applicable for younger students who are often strapped-for-cash. Then again, when these same students enter the workforce and the dough starts piling up, they may come into the market for more expensive, information-rich LBS apps requiring more advanced devices such as PDA/smartphones.

In the context of interactive travellers, who we assume to be rich enough and tech-savvy enough to afford the more information-rich services, there still comes the question of - who's going to build these services? Vodafone NZ? Unlikely, given that tourists, by definition, cannot be a long-term source of income for the carrier. Maybe someone can write a tourism-specific app for Navman's PiN (personal interactive navigation) devices, with the cooperation of tourism service providers such as hotels, tourist attractions, retailers, etc. I read somewhere that it's easier to use off-the-shelf technology than try to reinvent the wheel. There are already a ton of personal navigation/GPS devices available locally - what's stopping us from improving the user interfaces enough to make it both easy-to use and useful?

Anyway. At least I can finally give a New Zealand example of LBS, next time someone asks...

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