Where Wins Patent for Geofencing: Location-Based Companies, Take Notice

This is pretty big news for a local mobile startup. Boston-based Where, a mobile applications and advertising firm, announced today it has been granted a patent covering a wide swath of location-based services—in particular those related to delivering certain kinds of advertising, alerts, and coupons to mobile devices.

Where now has strong intellectual property protection around a burgeoning area in mobile. U.S. Patent No. 7,848,765 relates to a number of technologies around “geofencing”—this basically means establishing a virtual perimeter around a real-world area and alerting users of location-based services when a person or object of interest crosses that perimeter. When combined with location-aware mobile devices such as GPS-enabled smartphones, the technology can let people keep track of where their friends and loved ones are, for example, or allow companies and retail stores to know when consumers enter certain neighborhoods (so they can sell them stuff).

In a statement, senior analyst Greg Sterling of Opus Research called the news a “very significant patent and win for Where.” He added that geofencing and location-based ads are “among the most strategic opportunities in what will become a huge mobile market.”

Indeed, a whole slew of startups and big companies are trying to cash in on this emerging market. Companies from Foursquare and SCVNGR to Whereoscope (a Y Combinator startup), Google, and Facebook are looking to implement location-based local advertising in a smart way. One thing seems clear: for now at least, the intellectual property highway for these kinds of services goes through Where. The company hasn’t said yet whether it intends to defend the patent against potential infringers in court—an increasingly common tactic these days (see, for example, our recent coverage of infringement suits filed by Seattle-area firms Interval Licensing and Intellectual Ventures).

Where (formerly called uLocate) was very early in the location-based services game. It filed an application for the patent in question back in 2005. Since then, the company has built mobile apps—local retail listings and recommendations—across all the major smartphones and mobile devices. It also runs a location-based ad network, which it says reaches more than 50 million consumers around the U.S.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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