Coding a location based service introduced me to a lot of interesting concepts. The biggest of which was geocoding, an imprecise science of transcribing a user’s IP address into a real world location. I say imprecise because there’s really no good way of doing it and most of the geocoding and reverse-geocoding services out there rely on long lists that match an IP to its location. These lists aren’t entirely accurate so the location you get back from them is usually only good as an initial estimate and you’re better off using something like the HTML5 location framework or just simply asking the user where the hell they are in the world. Unfortunately those inaccurate lists drive a whole lot of current services, most of them with the intent of limiting said service to a certain geographical location.
I’ve written about this practice before and how it’s something of a hangover from the times of DVDs and region locking. From a technology standpoint it makes little sense to block access to certain countries (whether they block you is another matter) as all you’re doing is limiting your market. From a business and legal standpoint the waters are a little murkier as most of the geo-restricted services, the ones of note anyway, are done simply because it’s either not in their business interests to do so (although I believe that’s short sighted) or there’s a lot of legal wrangling to be done in order for it to be made available globally.
A clucky New Zealand ISP, FYX, was attempting to solve this problem of geoblocking and whilst they have withdrawn the service from the market (but are looking to bring it back) I still want to talk about their approach and why its inherently flawed.
FYX is offering what they call “Global Mode” for their Internet Services which apparently makes their users appear as if they’re not from any particular country at all. Their thinking is that once you’re a global user services that were once blocked because of your region will suddenly be available to you, undoing the damage to the free Internet that those inaccurate translations lists can cause. However the idea that no location = geoblocking services ineffective is severely flawed which would be apparent to anyone who’s even had a passing encounter with these services.
For starters most sites with geoblocking enabled do so by using a whitelist meaning that only people of specific countries will be able to access those services. For things like Hulu and netflix they are hard coded to IPs residing within the USA boundaries and anything that’s not on those lists will automatically get blocked. Of course there’s some in-browser trickery that you can do to get around this (although that’s not at the ISP layer) but the only guaranteed solution is to access them through a connection that appears to originate from an IP they trust. Simply not updating the location on those lists won’t do the trick so you’d need to do something more. It’s entirely possible that they’re doing something more fancy than this but the solution I can think of wouldn’t be very scalable, nor particularly proftiable.
It also seems that they might’ve got the attention of some rights holders groups who put pressure on their parent company to do away with the service. Legally there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the idea (apart from the fact that it probably wouldn’t work as well as advertised) but that wouldn’t stop media companies from threatening to take them to court if such a service was continued to be offered. It really shows how scared such organisations are of new technology if a small time ISP with a not-so-special service can be a big enough blip on the radar to warrant such action. I’ll be interested to see how FYX progresses with this, especially if they detail some more info on just how they go about enabling their Global Mode.
The reality of the situation is that we’re trending to a much more connected world, one where the traditional barriers to the free flow of information are no longer present. Companies that made their fortunes in the past need to adapt to the present and not attempt to litigate their way to profitability. Eventually that won’t be an option for them (think BlockBuster vs Netflix) and I really can’t wait for the day that geoblocking is just a silly memory of when companies thought that their decades old business models still worked in an ever changing world.
I’d like to think of myself as knowing a bit about the geo space and how it can be used as a basis for new applications or how it can augment existing ones. I’ve been elbow deep in developing such an application for over 6 months now and I’ve spent the last couple months checking out every service that could possibly be considered a competitor to me (there’s not many, if you’re wondering). Because of this I’ve started to notice a couple trends with up and coming web applications and it seems that the social networking world is going ballistic for any service that incorporates the idea of “check ins” at any location around the world. After spending some time with these applications (even ones that are still in private beta) I can’t seem to get a hold of why they’re so popular. Then again I didn’t get Facebook for a long time either.
The basic idea that powers almost all of these applications is that you use your phone to determine your location. Based on that the application will then present you with a list of places which you can “check-in” to. If your friends on the application they’ll get a notification that you’ve checked in there, presumably to get them to comment on it or to help you arrange with getting people together. It’s a decent trade off between privacy and letting people know your location as you control when and where the application checks in and most of them allow you to share the updates with only your friends (or no one at all). The hook for most of the services seems to be the addition of some kind of game element to it, with many of them adding in achievements and points. For someone like me it falls into the “potentially useful” category, although my experience with them has led me to think that saying “potentially” was probably being kind.
The services themselves seem to be doing quite well, with Foursquare and Gowalla both managing to wrangle deals with companies to reward users of their applications. In fact it seems that check-in based services are the latest darling child for venture capitalists, which funding flowing thick and fast for any and all services that implement this idea. For the most part I’d attribute most of their success with their ability to hook into Facebook through Connect, as building a user base from scratch for a social networking based site is nigh impossible lest you tangle yourself up with Zuckerberg’s love child. It also helps improves user trust in the application, although that benefit is on shaky ground as of late.
Still though the value they provide seems to be rather limited. After hearing that a couple of my tech inclined friends had ventured onto Foursquare (and I got bored of reading about them every day on my RSS reader) I decided to download their iPhone app and give it ago. The integration between other social networking services was quite good and it instantly picked up a couple people I didn’t know where using Foursquare. Playing around with it I began checking in to various places, accumulating points and my first badge. Still I didn’t feel like I really got anything out of using the application, apart from some virtual points which don’t appear to be worth anything to anyone (although the same could be said of Xbox GamerScore and PSN Levels). This hasn’t stopped Foursquare from reaching over 1 million users in just over a year which is quite impressive when compared to the current giants (Twitter took twice as long to reach a similar milestone).
It’s no secret that I’ve shied away from calling Geon a social networking application, despite the obvious social implications it has. Primarily this is because I don’t want to be lumped in as yet another social app but more and more I find myself needing to incorporate such features into the application, as that’s what people are coming to expect. There’s also the point that many of the ideas make a lot of sense when translated properly into my application. Two recent suggestions were a kind of rework of the Twitter trending topics and the other being the ability to follow people and locations. The first wouldn’t exactly be considered a social networking feature but the latter is pretty much the bread and butter of many social networking services. Still I don’t think people will be looking for check-ins in up and coming social apps, even after Facebook introduces their Foursquare killing service.
It’s true though that although I might not get it that doesn’t matter when so many others do. For as long as I develop Geon I’ll be keeping an eye on these services to see how they evolve as their user base grows, mostly to see if there’s anything I should be doing that I’m not already. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all changes when Facebook finally unveils its location based service to the world and you never know, I might have the penny drop moment that so many people seem to be having about check-ins.
Until then however my Foursquare app will be little more than an interesting talking point to bring up amongst friends.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of location based technology. There’s just so much information available to us out there that the use of filters has become a given and whilst the big players do a good job of providing the general filters based on topics the lack of location based filters is part of what inspired me to create Geon in the first place. This coincides with the explosion in ubiquitous GPS technology which was still out of the hands of your average consumer only a decade ago. Without these cheap and plentiful devices Geon simply couldn’t exist as the information streams would lack the data I require to provide accurate results (I try to avoid fudging data as much as I can, but for blogs and news there’s really no alternative right now). As I’ve said before I’m not the only one looking to capitalize on this, and I’ll be far from the last.
However despite the enormous benefits that such cheap and ubiquitous technology provides there is a flip side to this coin that I don’t often talk about: location based restrictions.
If you cast your mind back about 15 years you’ll find yourself in a world with a technology that was on the cusp of being released: the Digital Versatile(Video) Disk. Designed from the get go to be a replacement for the aging magnetic tape based format VHS it was something of a slow burning success as sales of the older format continued to outstrip it until 7 years later. Unbeknownst to most there was a sinister side to this new highly durable high definition format, the Region Code. At its heart the Region Code was a lock to prevent you from playing DVDs that you might have purchased elsewhere, giving the media houses precise control of what was released where and when with no exceptions.
At the time I was a salesman at the Australian chain electronics store Dick Smith Electronics. I can clearly remember the time when DVDs began to take off and for the most part it was all good. However as time went on we started to get people in with various DVDs brought by friends from overseas or otherwise that just wouldn’t play in their newly purchased player. Whilst for the most part we were able to circumvent these issues by up-selling them to region free players it didn’t stop the flood of complaints about why they couldn’t play something that they had legitimately purchased. At the time I didn’t care enough to find out the exact reasons but recently a resurgence in these region locking principles has started to send me over the edge.
Take for instance Hulu, a free video streaming service. As a service I think its a great idea since I could get the shows I want on demand and the content producers still get paid since they can slap ads onto the feed. Additionally there’s a whole swath of analytics you can run on such a service that just isn’t available on commercial TV (like how many people have actually watched the show, not just a rough guess). Plus every so often some great pieces of work will find their way onto Hulu such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. If you dare click that link you’ll notice that it doesn’t go directly to Hulu itself and that’s for a good reason, the first comment there demonstrates my point exactly.
Hulu unfortunately isn’t available to anyone who is outside of the USA and they’ve taken quite an aggressive stance with making sure that people tricking their way into the service are locked out. Whilst the underlying technology might have changed (Geolocation vs Region Code) the rationale for doing so is the same. Right now the content providers overseas want to control the distribution of their media in order to create a kind of artificial scarcity. What this does is inflate the value of said content when they go to license it to other countries since they won’t be able to source it from anywhere else.
From a business point of view I, unfortunately, agree with them. They are merely trying to extract the largest amount of revenue possible from their investments and creating these scarcities on products is just one way for them to increase their bottom line. Additionally I can understand where the business model comes from as in the distant past such a scarcity was created by the mere fact that it took a long time to get media from one place to another. However this doesn’t excuse the fact that such a business model is becoming unviable and introducing artificial restrictions on products will only support them for so long.
Such behaviour is typical of the media companies as they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming through every technological revolution in the past 100 years. The good news is that despite their ranting and raving the barriers that they have put up in futile attempts to preserve their ancient business models are starting to come down with players like Apple (iTunes Store) pioneering the way. We’re probably still about 10 years away before big media rethinks their business model for the age of the Internet but at least, for now, there’s light at the end of this tunnel.
After losing around 6 weeks of my life to a project I’ve only vaguely referred to as “The Plan” I promised myself a month off to catch up on my backlog of games, relax and then hit Geon hard with new features so that I could release it upon the world. That month is now closer to 6 weeks mostly because there were just so many good games out at the moment (I still have 4 to play through, ugh!) and I was thoroughly enjoying slacking off. I’ve justified putting off the development because in all my research around the web I haven’t found anything quite like it. That was until I happened across this:
Facebook is allegedly planning to roll out location sharing capabilities next month, once again playing catch-up to other services that have gained popularity thanks to location data. The rumor comes courtesy of anonymous sources who have been “briefed on the project” speaking to the New York Times, who said that Facebook will announce the feature at Facebook’s annual f8 conference in late April.
Great news right? I toyed with Facebook integration a while back but I never got the authentication working right and after a night of tinkering I found that I’d have to do some pretty heavy handed guessing to get the data in the right places. With services like Twitter and Flickr having beautifully easy geo-apis available I wasn’t too keen to muddy the information feeds unless I could guarantee a certain level of actual geo accuracy. So Facebook introducing a true blue geo api means more work for me, but also yet another hook for potential users.
But further down the article there comes a list of four services that have built their success based around user data that has geographic information in them. They are:
The last, and the one that made me almost jump out of my seat, was Brightkite. The front page has a lovely little section down the bottom that said “What’s happening in Canberra” and was happily displaying images that were supposedly from my area. Considering that I’m in the business of information aggregation with a geographical bent (trying saying that 5 times fast :P) my first reaction was that dreaded sinking feeling anyone gets when they think they’ve had the most brilliant idea in the world only to find it’s already been done, packaged and sold to everyone who would want it. However diving deeper into Brightkite’s world I can see that yet again they’re focused on the social networking side of things and much less on aggregating information based on location.
This I believe is the selling point for Geon. Whilst I appreciate that social networking is all the rage these days (as was blogs before them, and badly hacked together personal sites on Geocities before them and so on) it’s not the vision I have for Geon. It will have some kinds of social features in there (like following your friends, although Facebook integration might render that moot) but my main goal is getting information and hopefully establishing 2 way communication between people who want information.
The upside to all these apps coming out (and subsequently kicking my ass into gear) is that there is real demand out there for something like Geon. Talking to people about it only goes so far and it’s always good to have that little bit of hope that your work will someday be appreciated by the wider world.
Maybe I scare too easily 😉