Carriers Beat Facebook to Location Game

Facebook surprised attendees at its f8 conference this week not with what it said, but what it didn't.

Despite the potential of the combination of social network and location-based services, the Facebook had nothing to share on that front. In an atypical turn of events, it appears this is one area where the wireless operators have beaten the Web giants to the table. But, the game is far from over.

Most industry observers have Facebook pegged as the natural-born leader in the battle for the next great location API. With more than 500 million users, a strong presence on GPS-enabled mobile phones, and a rich social experience, location would be icing on the cake –- something that would attract developers, advertisers, and potentially new revenue.

But, with no location news coming out of Facebook's f8 conference this week, the wireless operators have a leg up, albeit one that Josh Martin, senior analyst of wireless media services at Strategy Analytics Inc. , is confident won't last.

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) has always been the most active in location, working with WaveMarket Inc. to release its data to developers, but AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless are catching up now.

AT&T has promised to open up its location APIs to developers looking to tap users' location for fun, utility, or marketing purposes, and Verizon did the same in its recently launched V Cast App stores. (See Verizon Outlines App Store Political Spectrum .)

Carriers promise a higher degree of accuracy through the phone's built-in GPS and the cellular network, but, according to Martin, their advantages end there. While they have large subscriber bases, carriers don't yet play nice with the other carriers, Martin says. Even the coolest location-based service loses value when it's limited to just AT&T or just Verizon. Aggregators like WaveMarket and uLocate are helping to change this, but the "cool factor" is also at play.

"It's a great indication that they are recognizing the limitations of being a carrier while trying to get involved," Martin says. "But, even AT&T with all the benefits they have from the iPhone making them cooler, they won't have the cache of a Foursquare or Gowalla, because these are the hip new brands."

Some took Facebook's silence to mean that it was working on acquiring the popular mobile LBS app Foursquare, which reached 1 million users yesterday, but has yet to turn a profit. Others surmised that its location features just weren't ready to go public yet. There are also significant privacy issues that Facebook has to work through to go to market with location, and partnering could be the route it takes.

The social-networking giant did introduce other new features this week, including a social graph API that lets users "like" anything on the Web and a protocol for status searching. (See Facebook 'Likes' the Whole Web.)

Its new protocols, which indicate that developers can tap into location to some degree, suggest that, whatever the delay, there's more to come from Facebook. It's a market that's also attracting Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), handset makers, and others still, so it's too early to cede a winner. It's anybody's game.

"Location is obviously something getting a lot of press and becoming increasingly important as an ad platform," Martin says. "It remains to be proven as a viable ad platform, but it's still pretty early... We'll see all these big guys dipping their toes into the water to figure out how to monetize this."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 4:38:42 PM
re: Carriers Beat Facebook to Location Game

Given all the other ways Facebook wants to screw up privacy and turn me into a monetizable ad target, it really is surprising they aren't all over the location thing yet. Not that I'm cynical about this or anything.

In tangential news, Blippy Users' Credit Card Numbers Found on Google.

sarahthomas1011 12/5/2012 | 4:38:35 PM
re: Carriers Beat Facebook to Location Game

I think Facebook would be better off just acquiring a company like Foursquare than trying to do anything location-wise on its own. Consumers don't have any expectation of location-related privacy there, and I'm sure it would be opt-in (everyone's favorite defense). OR, even better, why doesn't AT&T or VZW acquire Foursquare...that'd certainly level the playing field.

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