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How Your Wireless Network Will Change Your Social Network

By Jon Finegold

You're at the airport awaiting a flight only to learn of a two hour delay. What do you do? Take a walk to the newsstand and get caught up on celebrity gossip by flipping through some magazines.

It's Friday night and you're trying to figure out where to go. What do you do? Call your friends one-by-one and hope to catch someone before they've gone out for the night.

An intriguing woman passes you by on the street. What do you do? Try to make eye contact and dazzle her with your smile.

That's the world without the influence of location-based wireless applications.

Much of the hype surrounding location-based services was spurred initially in the late 90's by the U.S. government's E911 mandate. This directive requires all cell phones to be equipped with technology that would allow their exact location to be pinpointed in case of an emergency. The technology that wireless carriers and cell phone manufacturers have developed since then to conform to this government mandate seems to have whet consumers' appetites for more applications and utilities around location, location, location.

Now that much of the E911 infrastructure is in place, savvy wireless consumers are eager to take that functionality to the next level. It seems only logical for consumers to ask - if my cell phone knows where I am, can I use that information to find people nearby? Can I find interesting places around me? Can I learn about fun events I'd be into? And, can I use this functionality to let the people in my social network find me?

At first the introduction of location awareness offered little more than simple utility. Using a location aware device eliminated the need for the end user to know the zip code of their current location and smoothed the cumbersome process of typing their city and state into a cell phone. Location awareness also enhanced search and 411 capabilities by adding proximity for people wanting to find a restaurant, gas station, movie theatre or other nearby businesses. GPS-enabled cell phones let users see and hear turn-by-turn directions via their mobile handsets. But, that's about as fancy as it got.

In general, the first generation of location aware applications was rudimentary and didn't do as much to influence consumer behavior as they did to improve efficiency. At this early stage, many consumers were wowed the first time they saw their exact location pinpointed on a map visible on the screen of their mobile phone. But, the novelty of that wears off quickly.

Nextel, Sprint and Verizon Wireless are all offering wireless handsets equipped with GPS functionality which makes them "location aware." To capitalize on that, companies such as MapQuest have launched applications such as MapQuest Find Me (, which was the first commercially available friend finder application in the U.S. supported by a leading brand and the first to work across multiple wireless carriers. This and other applications like it have quickly gained popularity as users have found that with them they can find out what's nearby, how to get there and where their friends and family are located - right now.

The real "wow" for location-based services comes in the second generation of applications we're seeing more of now. This next phase of location applications have the opportunity and the potential to change the way people interact. They offer a new way to stay in touch with friends and family - but beyond that - new ways to build your social network and meet new people. These are the applications that will begin to really influence consumer behavior.

For example, MapQuest Find Me started out as a single user application that let one person see themselves and view their location on a map. That one person could also find a restaurant or nearby business or venue and get directions to that place from their present location. Today, with more and more handsets on the market that can obtain location data automatically, MapQuest Find Me and other applications are evolving into social connectors. The commands are changing quickly from "find me a pizza place nearby" to "find me the pizza place nearby where my friends are hanging out right now" and "who at this venue has similar interests?" and "what are they wearing there?" and "where are they going next?"

Location is an important step in the communications evolution. A few years back we saw "presence" - used by instant messaging applications to let buddies know when their friends are online - begin to influence online behavior. The introduction of presence began to dictate who you could chat with based on who is online at the exact moment that you want to chat.

Location influences behavior in even more interesting ways. Who you choose to connect with can now be influenced by, and change, according to your current location. Today, these applications are being used to help find people you know, but it won't be long before people expand their networks and connect with friends of friends who are nearby, or people of common interests who are nearby or who happen to be in the same place at the same time.

The main inhibitor to the broad scale right now is the wireless carriers. In order for the social applications to explode on mobile devices as they have on the Internet it will require location ubiquity - automatic location detection on every phone on every wireless network. When a consumer wants to connect with friends and family or meet new friends, it should not matter what wireless carrier their friends are on or which wireless device they use. As more and more location devices become available from the wireless carriers the door will be open for a new breed of social applications and new ways to connect with friends.

You're at the airport awaiting a flight only to learn of a two hour delay. Your college roommate happens to be at the airport too. You are both alerted by your cell phones that you are at the airport at the same time so you can arrange to meet for a cup of coffee the next terminal over, while you pass the time waiting for flights.

It's Friday night and you're trying to figure out where to go. A quick look at your phone shows you that several friends are hanging out at a lounge nearby. Some of them are carrying camera phones and snapping pictures of others in the crowd. You hop in a cab and join the fun without having to place dozens of phone calls to track down your buddies.

An intriguing woman passes by on the street. It turns out you both have a love for Sushi, science fiction and Labradors. You are both alerted that someone of common interest is in the area, a picture pops up, a text message is sent and a new connection is made.

These are not scenes from some futuristic movie - these are actual scenarios that the combination of your wireless network and location-based applications makes entirely possible.

Jon Finegold is Director, Marketing & Audience Development at uLocate Communications, Inc. uLocate provides consumer location-based services (LBS) powering applications for wireless carriers, MVNOs, and leading media brands. The Company's technology platform is used for a variety of LBS applications that enable users to find people, places and events -- both through the Company's network of partners as well as their own direct-to-consumer services. uLocate is the publisher of the MapQuest Find Me service. For more information, please visit Jon Finegold can be reached at 508-656-2127 or at