Where Do You Want to Go Today? uLocate Can Help You Decide

11/2/07Follow @wroush

Though it was more or less accidental, it’s been Location-Based Computing Week at Xconomy. We kicked off the week with a story Monday about EveryScape, which has introduced a database of amazing 360-degree views of streetscapes and building interiors from four U.S. cities. On Wednesday we told you about Untravel Media, which sells a series of multimedia walking tours for mobile devices such as iPods, and Urban Interactive, whose treasure-hunt adventures around Boston hinge on audio clues transmitted to a smart phone. And today we’re highlighting uLocate, a Boston software outfit that makes the Where platform, which outside developers are using to create a panoply of location-based applications for GPS-enabled mobile phones.

If you have a mobile phone from Sprint, Alltel Wireless, or Boost Mobile, you may already be familiar with Where. For $3 per month, added directly to your cell phone bill, those carriers will let you download the Where platform, which isn’t a single application but rather a collection of “widgets” that employ information about your location in various ways. When you open the Yelp widget, for example, it first gets a location fix from your cell phone. Then it can search for nearby restaurants, shopping, clubs, or anything else listed on the popular consumer review site.

“When you’re mobile, knowing what you want to do, see, or eat is easy, but knowing the where isn’t,” says Dan Gilmartin, uLocate’s vice president of marketing, who had me over to the company’s new offices last Friday. He explained that uLocate’s mission is to make it easy for all software writers—not just the tiny fraction of developers with experience in arcane and exclusive world of mobile devices—to create new widgets that will help people find the businesses, services, and attractions they’re hunting for.

ULocate didn’t start off as a platform builder. The company’s founders, mostly veterans of technology news network CNET, got together in 2003 with the idea of creating software for GPS-enabled cell phones that would help them keep track of their children as they moved through their days. At the time, though, Nextel was the only major cellular carrier that allowed outside software developers to write applications that accessed its phones’ GPS location-finding capabilities. That limited the market for a kid-tracking application, so the company tried other GPS-related products, such as a friend-finding feature for Mapquest, a vehicle fleet tracker for Trackem, a pet finder service that was sold to Pfizer, and the “Buddy Beacon” feature for Helio’s trendy mobile phones.

But along the way, “We learned it’s really difficult to build and deploy a GPS application to cell phones,” says Gilmartin. “You need talent—especially J2ME and Brew developers.” So around 2005, uLocate shifted its emphasis to platform development. “We realized that if we were solving this for us, we could be solving it for everyone,” Gilmartin says. “That was our ‘Aha’ moment—when we realized we could sell the Where platform to carriers as a platform for any developer to create GPS-enabled widgets.”

Using the Where platform, developers can avoid most of the frustrations of the mobile software world. That is to say, they don’t have know J2ME or Brew (two of the specialized software environments for mobile platforms), or how to integrate their software with a phone’s built-in GPS function, or how to adapt their software interface for screens of various sizes, or how to make their applications work across multiple phones from multiple carriers with multiple operating systems. “We abstract all of that away,” Gilmartin says. “The developer can write a program once and publish it to all platforms.”

uLocate’s Where Widget CustomizationDevelopers have created more than 40 Where widgets, such as an Eventful widget that directs users to the nearest events from the popular concert and event listing service and a Zipcar widget that helps users find the nearest Zipcar rental lot. Topix has created a widget that sends users the latest news and classified ads based on their location, and there’s even a whimsical “World’s Largest” widget that will help you find, among other things, the world’s largest artichoke (it’s in Castroville, CA).

Where subscribers can go to the Where website to customize which widgets show up on their cell phone. And from within any Where widget, they can call up a standard menu that will let them call a listed business, see a map, get directions, send a listing to a friend, or save a listing or location to a personal “My Places” menu.

Gilmartin says uLocate, which raised $11 million this May in a Series C funding round led by Venrock, Grandbanks Capital, and Kodiak Venture Partners, is in talks with mobile carriers to get its widgets onto more cell phones. The company is also working to boost developer awareness of its platform; it’s currently sifting through entrants from a location-based widget contest that closed on October 15. The grand prize winner will receive $5,000. Developers can also use the Where platform to create applications for an ongoing $50,000 contest sponsored by digital mapping company Navteq.

Currently, only about 15 percent of customers at the major mobile networks subscribe to location-based services, Gilmartin says. “It’s not that the other 85 percent aren’t interested—it’s that they’re not aware,” he says. But as companies invest in marketing their phones’ GPS capabilities—Verizon’s VZ Navigator feature is the most prominent example, with 2 million subscribers—awareness should increase. “As these services are driven by the carriers, I think we will see more adoption,” says Gilmartin. And that, pardon the inevitable pun, could help to put uLocate on the map.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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