LBS limits (again)

In his recent column at ACM interactions, Lars Erik Holmquist deals with two basic problems encountered by mobile social software: battery life and critical mass.

"The first may seem trivial, and more than one startup seems to simply shake it off—isn't everything in electronics getting better all the time anyway, according to Moore's law? No, this is actually a real killer. A device that pings its surroundings wirelessly with regular intervals, using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, will drain any sensibly sized battery in a few hours at most. Continuously pulling up and reporting a GPS location can be even worse. It is highly unlikely that users will stand for carrying half a dozen replacement batteries, and barring an unprecedented breakthrough in battery technology, the only fix on the horizon is some kind of push solution based on network cell location. Unfortunately, to be useful this requires a degree of cooperation between network service providers that is still a long way off.

The second issue stems less from a lack of user interest and has more to do with the extremely fragmented mobile device market. Whereas signing up for a Facebook account can be done in a matter of minutes, downloading and installing a mobile application has been lots of hard work and beyond the reach of most normal users. This might change very fast, however. With Apple's iPhone 3G and the accompanying Appstore, there is now for the first time an attractive platform and sales channel for mobile software. In response the rest of the market is likely to finally consolidate around a small number of standard operating systems (including Android, Symbian, and Windows Mobile). This means that quite soon, we will see people downloading and using social software on their phones—and those that hook into existing networks will have a head start. Already, iPhone versions of AIM and Facebook are among the Appstore's top downloads, with others such as Twitteriffic and MySpace also gaining headway."

Why do I blog this? This discussion echoes with the chapter of my locative media book which deals with the limits faced by location-based services. Both problems are highly important and limiting for the development of the field, even fifteen years after the first prototypes.