Will 2016 be the year indoor location finally goes mainstream?

Indoor location hit a positive milestone at this year’s MWC, where for the first time it got some serious and positive attention. Which is a hopeful signal for those of us who believe in the value and need for indoor location capabilities, to truly unleash the powers of the smartphone indoors.

While I am buoyed by the positive attention, I also see an underlying trend that can have a negative implication on the adoption of indoor location despite the apparent momentum. So while I congratulate the innovations that led to many of these breakthrough technologies, I am hesitant to declare the challenge overcome.

Many of the indoor positioning technologies being touted, require specialized chips or infrastructure to replace the “missing” GPS element that makes outdoor positioning so prevalent. And while this approach works well for niche markets like asset tracking or firefighting, where the infrastructure and user equipment are defined by the same vendor and are there to fill a vacuum. The same cannot be said for the consumer smartphone market where the device’s capabilities are controlled by Apple and the Android device manufacturing ecosystem.

What this means is that any indoor location technology will need to work with the standard array of technological capabilities that are uniformly embedded in the large majority of smartphone devices.

The reason “outdoor” location took off, is because Skyhook Wireless recognized the need to work with the readily available sources of information and mapped cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots to create a location database. The adoption of the Skyhook model along with GPS enabled location positioning use to explode and enable a new breed of applications.

The alternative location capability which is primarily used for 911 calls, uses the wireless network which is also a ubiquitous capability to locate devices. While this is rarely used in applications for a host of reasons, the NSA and justice department recognize this inherent value and put great emphasis and significant resources in collecting that information.

For indoor positioning to take off it will need to repeat the same approach and market conditions as those of its outdoor counterpart, which means that indoor positioning technologies that are adopted will be those that take advantage of the device sensors already in use, along with a dynamic capability that will assist the sensors in correcting any errors. This approach is commonly referred to as “sensor fusion”.

Any technology that requires new fixed infrastructure, even if its as simple as Bluetooth beacons, will pose a significant limitation to the capabilities and the adoption of indoor positioning capabilities. The value of fixed indoor infrastructure is as a complement to improve accuracy where it is required or simply useful.

Apple recognized this when it acquired WiFiSlam whose technology is similar to Skyhook in that it learns the Wi-Fi RF fingerprint patterns of a location. Combined with the sensor fusion approach, this should enable accurate and infrastructure-less indoor location capabilities.

The other option is for carriers to look at their networks and attempt to enable enhanced location accuracy, as well as increase its ease of use by third party developer. Both of which are unlikely.

Moving beyond incremental innovation in mobile

Today’s WWDC marks the 7 year anniversary of the original iPhone’s AppStore – albeit Safari web apps only – and is undoubtedly an important moment in the iPhone’s 7 1/2 year history. And whether one is a user of Apple, Android, Windows, Symbian, Palm, Tizen, Blackberry, or any other Smartphone, it is unequivocally an important milestone in the launch of the Smartphone revolution we are all part of today.

This year’s WWDC announcement has an added degree of significance as it likely to shed valuable insight on where Apple’s new management sees the future of the iPhone, mobility and Apple as a whole.

In order to continue driving mobile innovation forward and not fall into the trap of mere incremental improvements, it is worth imagining how a Smartphone would be developed in today’s technological environment if there were no iPhones or Android Smartphone’s in existence to cloud our thinking.

The original iPhone was inspired by various halting attempts to create a combination device of the many products from the period that were trying to make their way into the market, such as phone and PDA combinations from Palm, MP3 players from both Apple and competitors, messaging from Blackberry, GPS from Garmin and TomTom and what was at the time being termed UMPC’s, which were meant to be a bridge between the iPad and a Netbook.

The Smartphone’s that resulted from the culmination of these efforts invariably led to a product which acted as a miniature mobile computer that combined many of those functions, along with new and creative means such as added sensors and features that took advantage of the nature of mobile devices. The result was a very self-centered product model which was all about turning itself into the center of the consumers digital lifestyle, resulting in the requirement of downloaded apps for nearly any type of activity.

Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves in a new and very different technical reality, which now includes; modules such as fitness, connected devices, the connected home and/or some of its components, presence awareness, and just an overall plethora of new devices and sensors which overwhelm today’s Smartphone’s and makes it appear unsuited to the new task.

If a Smartphone were to be redesigned from the ground up it would look very different, although like past efforts it would be inspired by the technologies which surround us today and the expectations they are generating.

A new mobile operating system would shift its emphasis from apps to experiences and be a device less focused on itself and the apps within it and more aware of its surroundings and gracefully interact with it. This in effect morphs the Smartphone into a users personal and contextually aware dynamic remote control.

In order to enable these capabilities, the mobile operating system would need to develop a set of friction-less capabilities to better interact with these new surroundings. The surroundings include physical items such as fitness modules as well as means to interact with the surrounding physical spaces.

For physical items the need to download a companion app is a step backward from the PC where drivers are automatically loaded for a detected module and peripheral, and it would be fairly simple to auto download companion applications in a mobile environment in a similar manner.

Interacting with the surrounding physical spaces presents an entirely different challenge for which an app as we currently know them is not the answer, as there will usually not be an installed app for the given environment and users are unlikely to go through the effort to download apps, nor does every space have the wherewithal to create apps. Physical spaces include dynamically triggered based on mere presence or where a sensor such as a Bluetooth beacon are present to denote and trigger a given capability.

These spaces require the ability to trigger and load pre-defined elements that can be laid out in accordance with a fairly basic HTML like style sheet such as CSS. These elements can include a basic set of elements built into the operating system, but can also include the ability to load a unique or third party element on the fly without requiring an app installation.

A retail environment is a perfect example of how this would work. When a user enters a merchant their phone prompts them whether they’d like to interact with a store, and if they say yes a light version of an app would be loaded that allows them to search for items or interact with a web based shopping list, and even go as far as self checkout. The capabilities can include indoor positioning to leverage in-store maps to find items which would require the loading of an indoor positioning element.

The same applies for connected devices in a smart home. Individual devices can announce their presence and automatically be displayed and organized based on where you are and what capabilities are available to the user at the given moment. This also holds true for apps which can be hidden or surfaced based on the current context.

Hints of these concepts can already be found in some Android self organizing home apps like Cover, as well as iOS’s Passbook and iBeacon as well as the rumored Healthkit and Homekit or Android’s Google now which can easily form the basis for this vision of mobile’s next generation.

The carrier’s PRISM moment: A wakeup call?

Wireless operators have long had some of the most valuable customer data opportunity at their fingertips, but will NSA open their eyes to it?

The recent reluctant coming out party of NSA’s PRISM and other surveillance details courtesy of Edward Snowden, highlights the potential uses and value of data, and in particular that of carrier data.

One of the early responses from the government to the PRISM revelations was that it’s all “harmless” as it was simply metadata.

So what is the government’s definition of metadata and what can be done with it?

The metadata consists of: Caller ID, called number, IMSI (the SIM card Identifier), IMEI (the individual device identifier), trunk identifier, time and duration of call. According to the order it is not limited to this, so one can assume that they are asking for a location of the device as well as similar activity for any data sessions (for context an average smartphone pings the network every few minutes).

The short path from anonymous to identified

The claim that this data is anonymous and simply not usable without the actual phone number and account information details is patently false.

For data to be re-anonymized and converted into personally identifiable information, one simply needs access to other data sources that can complement and corroborate some of this data and suddenly the data identifies the individual to whom a single item referenced. The low threshold of the corroborative data required was highlighted in this study performed by researchers at MIT.

This was highlighted by the Netflix million dollar challenge which was initiated for research purposes and was highly regarded, yet by researchers at the University of Texas simply cross referencing it with data freely available from IMDB’s database the researchers were able to accurately re-identify the identity of users in the sample data.

The carrier data is far more insidious as there is simply no better tracker than a cell phone, as the cell phone has been shown to be bound to us even more than our key and wallet. What’s more; the cell phone is both an active tracker for all the activity we manually perform like application usage and phone calls, and a passive tracker that constantly interacts with the wireless network to identify our locations and activities in real-time.

The scary capabilities

Now if researchers were able to do this with freely available data, imagine what the NSA and other intelligence agencies can do with their proprietary data to de-anonymize the carrier metadata with extreme accuracy.

To get a grasp on what the NSA can do with the data once they are de-anonymized, one needs to simply look at this study conducted with similar carrier data by researchers at the University of Birmingham which I referenced to in an earlier post. The researchers were able to “predict” with 94% accuracy where an individual was likely to be in the next 24 hours within 20 meters of accuracy, and further research by Microsoft allowed fairly accurate predictions 285 days in the future.

The goldmine for carriers

To date the carriers have dipped their toes into the possibilities enabled by the rich data opportunity with programs such as Verizon’s Precision Market Insights or Sprint’s Pinsight Media and now AT&T, or abroad in the UK with the cross carrier Weve joint venture that provide agencies with anonymous user data to improve targeting. However the real opportunity is for carriers to create their own businesses utilizing their data to provide rich and contextual customer experiences and application that leverage these types of analytics.

While the NSA does not require any opt-in or privacy mandates, any commercial application will require these types of stringent controls.

Yet the NSA’s insight into the value of carrier customer data – while distasteful, can hopefully be a catalyst for the carrier community to recognize the opportunities presented by that “collateral” side of their business and take its possibilities seriously, while proceeding with thoughtful caution.

The Programmable Mobile Network Cloud

In the ongoing discussion about how carriers can keep up with their customers’ speed and coverage requirements, a larger question is being neglected: How do they pay for all of the new technologies and capabilities required to address those concerns?

Operator pricing reflects the cost structure of core networks, including 50,000-75,000 cell sites for a national carrier in the US and lots of spectrum. This model served the carriers well through the migration to 2.5G and even through the early stages of 3G. Yet, with 3G, the new generation of data-hungry smartphones started showing their impact, best demonstrated by some of the early issues for AT&T’s network after the iPhone’s launch in 2007.

A realization started taking hold that a new way of deploying networks will be needed to keep up with the realities of wireless growth and use. The issue became more about capabilities than coverage, and the need to be closer to the user and create a denser network became obvious. That closeness improves the data capacity and throughput in heavily used areas.

The new capability is a merger of various technologies that fall under the small-cell moniker. These small cells are generally miniature versions of cell sites, but in size and deployment, they look more like WiFi hotspots. The reduced footprint allows them to be positioned in plain sight but obscurely in areas previously unsuited for a full cell site. This opens up the possibility of bringing the network close to the users, such as in a store or on streetlight posts. This new style of network is commonly referred to as the heterogeneous network (HetNet).

Unfortunately, this new style of network adds a tremendous burden to the capex and opex of the carriers. The cost and complexity of deploying these small cells is significant and will only add to cost of the network. However, these new costs (the cost of running today’s wireless networks) are not reflected in any changes in charges to the customer. This in effect means that the carriers are subsidizing improvements in service with little reward, aside from the all-important customer satisfaction requirement.

This has led to acrimonious talk about OTT applications. The carriers feel they should be compensated for creating a network that allows these applications in the first place. One can argue about the overall merits of the carriers’ position, yet the reality remains that these OTT applications create the need for a costlier network, which the carriers provide at great cost that they must eat.

The question, therefore, is how carriers are supposed to benefit from the ongoing and increasing investments in their networks. The answer lies in those very same investments.

Making the network work for you
When one looks at the 3GPP standards that are the foundation of the wireless network infrastructure and service, one sees a network aimed at providing reliable wireless services. On closer inspection, the standards are merely the sum of their parts, which contain a host of minute capabilities that allow the wireless service and were designed with that primary goal in mind. Yet those minute capabilities can be reconfigured and used for purposes other than wireless service.

Take this research from Microsoft that aims to gather real-time information on a given location. The current setup requires a user to check in at the location and provide the required information. Yet the optimal way to do it is by leveraging the registration requirement that allows the network to know where the user is upon entering the facility and using the control plane to activate the device and gather the required information.

Vodafone is using that registration information in Greece to provide free service in participating retailers. The control plane device activation is currently used primarily for location discovery in the event of an emergency call.

Carriers already mix and match some of these capabilities as needed for various M2M applications, yet these implementations are extremely costly and time consuming, so they are limited to carrier-sanctioned products. It is incumbent that we turn the core of the carriers into development environments — with the obvious stringent privacy, security, and veto controls — by simplifying and exposing the network to outside developers.

OTT companies and app developers will always look to take the quickest, most efficient route to market. We can all agree that is currently not with the carriers if they have a choice in the matter. Yet developers and their investors will recognize the value of unique and game-changing capabilities, and they’ll be more than willing to deal with the reasonably surmountable yet clearly defined roadblocks to partake in the opportunity.

By opening up these core capabilities and making them easy to use as individual modules, carriers remove the need to limit which services get deployed based on resources. This will open up profit avenues and scenarios that leverage the new and unique underlying capabilities of HetNets, including new business models.

For carriers, recognizing that they do not have all the answers, and that they cannot exploit every opportunity, is the first step in preventing their networks from morphing into an unsustainable dumb pipe.

This blog dated 4/17/2013 was originally edited by Sarah Reedy from Light Reading and published on the now defunct innovationgeneration.com community website.

Mining the Last Mile for Data Gold

Wireless operators have long had valuable customer data at their fingertips, but they are just now starting to explore what that data can do for them and their customers.

The new way of thinking is based on the fact that the more an end customer uses services on an operator’s networks, the more data points the operator can collect and use for a new breed of services that can be deployed flexibly and monetized rapidly.

recent University of Birmingham study hosted by Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) highlighted the value of some of the ever-increasing amounts of data accumulated during the regular use of a mobile phone. By using sample user data from across a wireless network, researchers were able to predict where a user would be heading over the next 24 hours to within 20 meters. This data included ordinary location updates and call logs, which were layered and analyzed with similar data from the relationships that were established by the call log.

Imagine the opportunities if all this data was used as a real-time platform for creating services. The types of services this data can enable — everything from law enforcement apps to location-based advertising and payment apps — are truly groundbreaking and can make today’s average mobile app appear frivolous.

Take a simple example from day-to-day life: Your spouse asks you to pick up your child, who is staying over at a friend’s house. Instead of running the risk of forgetting, you could set up a reminder based on a calculation of the time it takes to get there — live traffic is also carrier data, after all. Your spouse could also see or be preemptively notified by a choice of voice, SMS, MMS, or push notifications when you will be arriving with updates in real-time. Using an operator-powered app, your spouse could set this up the night before simply by adding the notice to your calendar app that supports this functionality.

If the app environment has showed us anything, it’s that the mobile phone is an always-present companion. If you allow services to be created uniquely for it, the result is a highly successful and profitable app store for its enabler, whether that be Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) or Google(Nasdaq: GOOG) or the wireless operators.

The weakness of the current phone-based app environment is the need to program individual applications for specific operating systems and the need for the application to be activated for use. If a developer wants to create a passive application that runs in the background without requiring the user to launch it or provide input, it burdens the battery and the network.

The carriers face no such burdens. Wireless network data is already constantly monitoring the mobile devices. If the data were used in real-time, it could power a new generation of easily created, cloud-based, contextually aware applications.

As luck would have it, the technologies and resources to deploy these types of services are already in widespread use in various divisions of the carriers and their landline siblings. For example, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) has AT&T Interactive, which is all about ad targeting, and AT&T Labs, where analytics are a core competency.

Roadblocks to data divinity

However, more can be done. One thing holding back innovation around contextual apps is the wireless operators’ focus on optimizing the radio requirements, rather than putting them to work in new ways. If they factored data collection and storage into the network’s design, the new data they would collect would be even more valuable and useful.

The second factor stopping carriers from allowing this to happen is a reluctance to share this data, due to privacy and regulatory concerns. But a tight and granular set of opt-in controls can actually improve the privacy factor significantly over today’s extremely limited uses.

The opportunities for carrier apps that use their last-mile knowledge are immense. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and viewing mobile devices solely as a burden to be managed, carriers ought to join the fray and view the devices as an opportunity to create an extremely positive and profitable relationship with their customers.

This blog dated 11/7/2012 was originally edited by Sarah Reedy from Light Reading and published on the now defunct innovationgeneration.com community website.