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Why do maps matter so much?

MAHANANDA BOHIDAR
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Google Maps

Tech enthusiasts are never short of some fresh news to obsess over every week. Rumored discussions between social-media player Foursquare and tech giant Apple to incorporate Foursquare’s ‘location’ data in Apple’s critically hammered Maps App is the latest bit of tech news which has everyone speculating about the implications of a possible deal. Raising the chatter over mobile maps was the little tidbit that Google’s recently released Maps App for iOS devices had seen over ten million downloads within a couple of days of release.

Shifting battleground

Markets such as US and Europe now have more smartphone users than feature phone users. Indian smartphone penetration is estimated at a paltry 3-4 per cent but it is growing at a rapid enough clip to have global majors rushing their releases to Indian shores at prices which are not as ridiculous as disparities in the PC market.

But here’s the important bit. Folks who have smartphones do a lot more with their devices than those who own vanilla feature phones. They browse the web, read stuff, listen to music, look to share stuff with friends and find stuff like recommendations for restaurants, shops and the ilk through their phones. Friendly smartphones also have map services to point users in the direction of those restaurants, shops and other entertainment. For tech majors such as Google, Apple, Facebook and smaller players such as Foursquare, being able to point you in the right direction and giving you a voice on whether you loved or hated a certain place tells them a lot about your preferences and possible choices.

Smartphones as saviours

Apple and Google through iOS and Android respectively are the two largest and mature players in the smartphone space which is estimated at 640 million users globally. They’ve got users who walk around with these handy devices asking (Google Voice or Siri) or typing questions (Google Search, Bing etc). Some of these users give answers too through services like Foursquare. Foursquare users air to those logged into the service where they have been entertained or where they like to dine.

Given Apple’s recent difficulties in building a reasonable map service for their mobile users, such localized info could be soothing balm for its irked user base. This is especially the case given Google and Nokia have rushed in with its own apps. Facebook has also been hard at work on Facebook Nearby which provides similar functionality to Foursquare.

By rolling together city maps with listings of local restaurants, shopping , tourist destinations and whether those near and dear to you love or hate the experience, tech companies want to combine a tour guide, opinionated best friend and cumbersome map into a single attractive package. At the end of the day, these tools cost the user nothing, so why do companies continue to pour money into maps, search, social networks and other esoteric gizmos? They’re just refining what they hope is the holy grail of personalized advertising.

Footing the bill

As things stand, advertisements through newspapers and televisions are blunt instruments which hope scale and reach makeup for large swathes of possible irrelevance. Social networks and mobile devices provide convenient data catchments which can be used to better target potential consumers. Are you looking for a nearby coffee shop or suit sale? Search for it on an iOS device, Google Maps or Facebook and up pops a neat little graphic telling you how to get there, what’s the offer and what your friend thought of it.

Are you a lost tourist looking for a cheap bed and breakfast and the bus or train that gets you there? One of the three aforementioned services again comes to your rescue. The better you are at giving directions and serving up relevant info, the more people use the service. That gives Apple, Google or whoever else leverage to walk up to micro, small, medium and large businesses and tell them they’ve got the data on who would be interested in their products or services. This could be the future of advertising, and it starts with multi-billion dollar companies retracing where that favourite childhood pastry shop of yours is.

mahananda.bohidar@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 20, 2012)
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