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Loopt CEO discusses future of mapping on cellphones

September 10, 2008 | 12:52 pm

These days, we use our phones for a lot more than just phone calls. We take pictures with them, send e-mail on them, and, increasingly, look up directions on them. Directions and mapping on phones (the wireless industry calls them "location-based services") are changing the way we use our handsets. It's not necessary anymore to print directions or find a restaurant online before you leave the house. Now, you can just look it up on your phone on the go. Of course, this isn't always foolproof -- when I recently asked someone for directions, he pulled out his iPhone map then pointed me the wrong way.

Loopt CEO Sam Altman Dozens of companies are showing their location-based mobile phone applications at CTIA, a wireless industry conference kicking off today in San Francisco. The apps allow you to check traffic on phones, see where your friends are and find good places to eat. I sat down with the CEO of one of the biggest such companies, Loopt, at CTIA to talk about how location-based services on phones are going to transform the ways we interact down the road.

Loopt, a 2 1/2-year-old company based in Mountain View, Calif., lets you see on your phone where your friends are and what they've been doing lately. It can give you directions to them or to restaurants they like. It's one of the only location-based applications to be available on all major carriers (carriers have to give companies access to your location information). Chief Executive Sam Altman calls it an an "enhanced address book" because you can see friends and what they're up to on a map. The company doesn't share user numbers, but he says it has "way more users" than any other similar service, and that Loopt added 100,000 in the first few days the iPhone was available. 

Altman says that location-based services are going to lead to a "shift in social interaction -- things will be more spontaneous and less planned." Think of how the cellphone already changes the way you meet up with friends. Perhaps you don't pick a specific meeting place, but rather just call each other when you arrive. Location-based services will change the way you meet up with friends tenfold, he says. Already, Altman goes out on weekend nights without any plans, looks up where friends are on his phone then goes and finds them.

"It almost always works" and he finds friends to meet, he says. "A few times, it doesn't."

In a few years ...

... maybe everyone will plan things that way. Location-based services are really beginning to take off  -- GPS technology is the most-requested feature on mobile phones, and about 60% of revenue from mobile applications comes from location-based services. According to a recent OpusResearch study, more people say that maps and driving directions are important on their phones than are weather, e-mail or games.  Altman says people will become more dependent on location-based services as other carriers release iPhone-like data plans.

What's down the road? Advertising catered to where you are, for one. Perhaps you're looking to buy some new shoes -- you'll be able to type in "shoes" on your phone map and an ad will pop up for a local store that sells shoes, complete with directions and specials. Coupons for those shoes are probably a little farther off -- it takes retailers a capital investment of up to $10 million to get the kind of technology that can read coupons on phone, Altman said.

In countries such as Korea that are far ahead of the United States in mobile technology, the three most popular location-based features are navigation, local search and people finding, Altman said. In some countries, you can search for people with similar interests and pay to get their contact info, then meet them spontaneously in a coffee shop or bar. In the future, maps on your phones might memorize your route to work and not only tell you where you're going, but also where the traffic is, why there's traffic and how to avoid it.

Of course, not everyone likes the idea of their phone companies, friends and random strangers knowing where they are at all times, which is a main tenet of location-based services. It may seem a little too "Minority Report."

"There could be a privacy backlash if someone starts not being very respectful," Altman acknowledged.  In Korea, for instance, usage of location-based services dropped when a few companies were too invasive of their customers' privacy, he said. The companies backed off though, and consumers, realizing they couldn't live without location-based services on their phones, signed up once again.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Loopt CEO Sam Altman. Credit: Loopt