On Mobile, The Location Arrow May Finally Be Pointed In The Right Direction

Been thinking about “Always-on Location” on mobile a lot lately, or “ambient location” apps which always grab our GPS coordinates. I wonder if this the moment they start to kick in?

From time to time on Twitter, I’ll unknowingly dip my toes into contested waters. There are some debates which run deep, like strong ocean currents. Occasionally, I muster up the courage to write about my personal preference for iOS over Android (as well as Apple’s ecosystem advantage vis a vis others), or to write about how native mobile apps will provide the consumer touchpoint that matter, while the web as we know it will wane in relevance. This week, I may have stumbled onto another one: The debate around whether mobile consumers, at large, are ready and willing to allow some applications the right to persistently grab their location.

Disclaimer: This post *is not* about apps that capture your location while the app is active, such as Foursquare, or Google Maps. Rather, it is about apps which require GPS access most of the time, even at times when the app is not open or active.

A few days ago, I tweeted: “Maybe it’s me, but a whole lot of people assume the majority of smartphone users will be OK with an app that persistently grabs location.” Turns out I was wrong, and the situation is a bit more nuanced. I don’t have stats for the following, but play along. At least on iOS, when users onboard onto the platform itself, most seem to allow Apple to grab location from time to time, such as when Siri is activated, or when taking a photo, as well as more periodically so that Apple can provide both generalized and signification location change APIs to developers. At the app layer, it seems consumers are growing more comfortable with allowing applications to access the GPS sensor, including those apps which ask to persistently.

“Persistent Location” (or “Ambient Location”) presents a complicated case. Again, I don’t know how to prove this, so I rely on intuition, which tells me those who work in startups, technology, and mobile are aware of the battery costs associated with “always-on” GPS apps, and it may be that the early-adopters are the ones to test out such apps but are also more cognizant of the costs. On the other hand, the majority of iOS users may not be aware of how to kill active apps running in the background, how to manage which apps can access their GPS in settings, and so forth. And, to be fair, mobile developers continue to improve their app’s own battery management, using Apple’s APIs to grab location during active use or periodically throughout the day. Certainly, it’s easy to see why developers salivate over having location always on — the ability to collect more user data, an opportunity to send more precise and contextual notifications, and the chance to predict user behavior inanticipatory ways.

About 18 months ago, I wrote about how various apps grab user location either implicitly or explicitly, and suggested that few apps in the market, if any, offered consumers enough value or benefit to warrant the battery cost associated with ambient location permissions. At the time, my belief was passive or ambient location data collection would be hindered by battery concerns, but now I wonder if we are right on the cusp of an app which gets to scale with ambient location permissions. In fact, some of the smartest app developers I know (those with deep location experience) seem to think we are right at this juncture, which is exciting, and they themselves are seeing promising percentages of users going along for the location ride. In particular, apps likes Moves, recently launched HeyDay, and a bunch currently in stealth about to hit the market.

So, there we have it. We will have to wait and see how app makers and the market responds, but with better battery optimization techniques, better location APIs, and a potential divide between early-adopter techies (who fight to preserve battery at all costs) and the normal consumer, who may not care to manage settings or know how to, the stage may be set. Of course, the onus ultimately falls on app developers to create something which not only justifies the API calls, but also creates enough value for users to engage and re-engage with the app beyond just data collection, organization, and presentation. And, as it is with all things, the market here will also decide if this is indeed the time ambient location enthusiasts have been waiting for. That once-dreaded location arrow in the top-right status bar, whether full or greyed out, may quite well be a thing of the past.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus