Apr 11, 2011

Everything Is Great Until It Isn't


The $41 million Color fiasco only served to point out how unreliable location still is on smart phones. Not to mention a hassle.

That in turn has turned the spotlight on companies who are seeking to remedy this through something called “persistent location” which broadcasts your whereabouts whether or not you have the apps on your phone open. The advantage is that it can track you as you move about your day, so you don’t have the lag time of the smart phone figuring out that you’re 10 miles from where you last checked in every time you open the app.

That’s also the disadvantage: the companies building this technology are also billing it as a way to push coupons at consumers when they are in range of your business. So if you are, say, around the corner from Starbucks, you’ll get a message inviting you to have a latte for 25 cents off.

It’s all opt-in and above board and, as of now, pretty novel. Until of course, it’s not. I have visions of walking down the street and getting assaulted by offers from dozens of companies. I mean I get that everything would be opt-in, but so is email, and think of how often you find yourself searching for that “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the email. And how many times unsubscribing involves entering some long-forgotten user name and password to “modify your account’s notification settings.”

What’s more, getting a 25 cent coupon every time I walk past Starbucks may seem like a great idea if I’ve got a several-times-a-day Starbucks habit. But checking to see what’s making that buzzing noise on my phone, especially if I pass by Starbucks several times a day is going to get old fast.

Push coupons also seem to fall into the same category as internet banners: they’re asking you to stop doing something time sensitive (looking up your flight reservation, walking to a lunch meeting) to pay attention to their product. Location is particularly sensitive in this area: outside of vacation trips, how often do we find ourselves wandering the streets without a specific destination in mind.

Persistent location may someday prove useful, perhaps in conjunction with other data. (Imagine an app that tracked your location and cross-referenced it with periods of high or low productivity. That’s data you might be able to make use of.)

But pushing coupons at you as you walk down the street? That sounds like nothing more than the electronic version of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

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