Five location-based services to watch in 2009

It’s been a big year for location-based applications and services. The release of Apple’s 3G iPhone and Apps Store has given millions of consumers their first access to LBS products. And the movement is being further pushed along by T-Mobile’s G1 and other touchscreen smart phones that use the LBS-enabling Android operating system.

Next year, look for established players to continue developing their revenue models, while more competitors start up, drawn to the new opportunities. Here’s our list of five location-based service providers or application developers to keep an eye on in 2009 (in alphabetical order):

Brightkite

While still in private beta, founder Martin May told me this week that location-based social network Brightkite will be fully public before the end of 2008, offering a number of new undisclosed features. The company will also be releasing an update to its iPhone application, as well as Brightkite apps for both the Android and Blackberry platforms. May also said we can expect Brightkite to break into the location-based gaming space, though he didn’t reveal specific details.

So far the company has raised a little over $1 million in funding, and while May wouldn’t say if it’d be looking to raise another, he did say it’ll work on monetizing the social network in 2009. It recently launched Brightkite Wall, a Twitter-like platform extension that displays real-time user updates and will likely be licensed to enterprise partners. Also, May said the company is working on an ad-serving platform that will help monetize both its mobile platform and dot-com platform that receives roughly 200, 000 unique visitors per month.

Mexens Technology

Mexens Technology is best known for developing Navizon, a software-based wireless positioning system that aggregates wi-fi hotspots and cell tower locations from its 800,000 users. Its database is large and accurate enough for use on non-GPS-equipped mobile devices. In essence, mobile devices that don’t have a built-in GPS chipset can draw location data from Navizon’s database in order to acquire similar location information.

Mexens Technology will be up to some interesting things in 2009. Chief executive Cyril Houri told me that the company is working on a non-GPS positioning system that will work indoors. He didn’t elaborate too much but did reveal that it will most likely be offered to medical emergency first responders in order to locate the exact position of a person in a building. The seven-person company, profitable since the beginning of 2008, will also be looking for carriers to pick up Mobifindr, an application that can locate a lost phone and alert you to it via SMS. Known more for practicality than coolness, Mexens Technology is also expanding its Alert system, which currently lets you define geographic regions and receive an alert when, for example, a friend enters the region. This represents a first foray into home control. For example, Navizon Alert will be able to set up a ‘geofence’ 3 miles from your home, capable of doing things like activating your air conditioning when you cross the fence.

Orbster

There aren’t too many companies around at the moment solely devoted to location-based gaming. But with the increasing adoption of LBS services, I think that it will be big in the next couple of years, and Orbster is well positioned to take advantage of it. Creator of GPS Mission, a game that lets users create and play location-based treasure hunting games, Orbster is located in Munich, Germany.

In a conversation with company president Georg Broxtermann this week, he said that GPS Mission will soon be available for both the iPhone and Android-based T-Mobile G1. He also said that a recently-raised third round of financing will be used to continue development of a “real blockbuster” LBS game the company is working on. Though a firm believer in the possibilities of hyper-local advertising, Broxtermann told me that the company plans to make money by offering virtual goods in 2009.

Sense Networks

You could argue that Sense Networks isn’t an LBS company. But it has developed a location-based nightlife application for the Blackberry called Citysense that it will soon make available for the iPhone. Citysense is the culmination of massive amounts of data analysis by the company’s underlying platform Macrosense. By analyzing groups of people heading out for a good time at night, Sense Networks has built Citysense to predict what’ll be hot before it even happens. This is why Sense Networks could be huge.

When I was talking to company chief executive Greg Skibiski the other day, he told me about how some of the company’s private investors (hedge fund managers) were able to use taxi cab traffic coming to and leaving from a giant retailer in order to estimate the store’s earnings, using the Macrosense platform. The investors were so confident they placed money on the predicted earnings before Wall Street announced them. They made a pile of money. This success is indicative of the possibilities this type of data analysis could bring to mobile social networking and advertising.

Whrrl

Whrrl, a social discovery network developed by Pelago, not only lets you stay connected with friends, but also to discover places and events. Whrrl was the first iPhone application to receive an investment from Kleiner Perkins Caulfied & Byers’ iFund for iPhone developers. It has also received hefty sums from T-Mobile and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. So why am I bullish? Because chief executive and co-founder Jeff Holden was the senior vice president of online consumer services for Amazon.com prior to co-founding Pelago. He was one of the developers of Amazon’s prediction system that analyzes consumer behaviour, and, based on a user’s previous searches, delivers other products that may be of interest.

In a chat with Holden, he told me he has the know-how to transfer this type of system to the Whrrl platform. Judging by Amazon’s success in delivering appropriate product matches to users — if you don’t know what I mean, try it out — Holden and his team could likely develop a similarly effective geo-targeted advertising platform for Whrrl. He didn’t disclose too much to me when I talked to him, so I’m not sure if this will roll out in 2009, but he did reveal the company will attempt to monetize the platform by selling virtual goods.

Facebook And MySpace

Neither of the social networking behemoths have implemented geolocation into either web platforms or mobile apps. While neither company would disclose their future plans in this regard, if either were to implement location-awareness in 2009 they would devastate the location-based social networking industry. No other social network is even close to achieving the same user base as these two.

Others

There are a few other companies to look out for in the next year, though I won’t detail them here for brevity’s sake. Loopt, uLocate Communications, and Skyhook Wireless are all firmly on my radar, and I’m sure we’ll see substantial growth from each in 2009.

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