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 Location, Location, Location

Pinpointing the Killer App With @Road's  Mobile GPS System

by Tom Bunzel (tombunzel@wwwiz.com)

 

One of the mostly closely watched aspects of the Internet is its potential connection to other devices. The worldwide network began on the computer, but quickly extended to television (Web TV), and there has been a great deal of talk about ``intelligent devices"–such as Internet-ready refrigerators.

But to go from the mundane to the cosmic, consider the 24 global positioning satellites that are circling the globe. Many earthbound applications use this satellite network to identify where objects are located–these devices can be found in cars, portable hand units and even some golf carts.

But what about distributing this geographic location information via the Internet?  Web applications can come to you while you are mobile, with location-based information about traffic, entertainment, banking and a host of other services.

These are what Fremont-based @Road expects will become the ``killer app" for its initial target market–small and medium sized businesses that depend upon fleets of vehicles of vans, cars, buses and trucks.

Make no mistake, other companies are already connecting computers to the GPS satellites–Qualcomm, for example, connects cellular devices to a legacy system for the larger trucking companies to track their vehicles nationally.

But @Road (www.@road.com) has leveraged the ubiquity of the Internet to allow any company to use any Web browser to locate–and even to communicate with–any vehicle by accessing its location on the GPS satellite network.

This means a family in Minnesota, where some school buses are connected to an @Road system, can use a Web browser to find out when the school bus is moments away from the door. That knowledge can cut the time a child has to wait in the cold, which is vitally important when it's 20-below zero.

Sensors on the doors of school buses take the technology even further–in San Francisco school bus dispatchers can know when and where the doors are opening and closing to ensure that all children are actually picked up and dropped off at the proper time and place.

That's very cool–but what about businesses?

LocationSmart, the @Road mobile platform, includes the set of devices, and patented positioning technologies that connect to the network of satellites and the Internet.  These literally make any vehicle ``aware" of its location on the planet within yards.

FleetASAP, @Road's application, allows customers to track the movement of their vehicles, employees and goods and services through its Web site and provides for two-way messaging between customers and their mobile workers.  @Road's business customers can gather and use location-relevant information from mobile resources to make informed decisions that enhance productivity and profitability.

For the many businesses that operate fleet vehicles that need to be in specific locations at very specific times, this becomes a mission-critical and profit-enhancing technology.

For @Road, this set of location services for fleets is a proprietary mobile operating system or platform–and a single sale to one company garners up to 1,000 immediate subscribers.

The differentiating factor for @Road and the key to its success is the integration of the Internet, wireless technology and GPS in making its application Web based. Smaller companies can't afford to design their own solutions and large companies need an IT department to typically implement a proprietary solution, but @Road's application is available quickly and inexpensively to anyone with Internet access.

Says John Lankes, vice president of marketing: ``It's the purest form of an ASP. We are growing very rapidly, with over 28,000 subscribers and we're adding about 3,000 per month.  Our distribution model is through 75 direct sales people, our wireless partners and existing agent agreements with a network of existing dealers."

While this is currently a business-to-business model, consumer applications and intermediate professional/consumer scenarios are evolving.
            Currently the way it works is that a fleet owner purchases for $375 a set of iLM (Internet location monitor) terminals for his or her fleet.  Each of these is a GPS receiver and a wireless data modem.

With the unit on board, the vehicle is always aware of its location anywhere on the earth, through the signal from the GPS satellite that goes to one of @Road's two redundant data centers (one in Philadelphia, the other in Fremont).

Anyone can access this information through the @Road set of application services, and track or communicate with any vehicle through any Web browser by connecting to the password protected site. Generally in the mobile fleet scenario, the user is a dispatcher who logs on to a password-protected site. He or she gets a real-time map view of any vehicle's location.  The vehicles on the map are shown with arrows if they are moving, or as diamonds on the display if they have stopped.

Suppose the client needs to send a vehicle as quickly as possible to a specific location.  The dispatcher–or any authorized person at the company–can find the address, zoom in on it in the map view–locate the closest available vehicle to the specified destination, and click on the vehicle to send an instant message.

(To put the final step into effect, the vehicle must also be equipped with @Road's optional data terminal (iDT), which has an LCD screen and the capability to send messages back and forth.)

            Besides the map and messaging capabilities, @Road's data center generates a report on all aspects of the vehicle motion, billing and customer satisfaction, mileage and maintenance requirements such as the need to check the oil and brakes and any other issues relevant to the specific client. It is a sophisticated customizable database that can download its data to Excel to generate charts and graphs or otherwise help making assessments for the fleet.

            LocationSmart also includes a commerce exchange component that will allow customers to benefit from bulk purchases.  For example, as the system tracks the necessity for replacing tires throughout an entire fleet of vehicles, it can also bid on lots of such merchandise in bulk rates.

            None of these services would be possible without the GPS satellite network, which is operated by Department of Defense.  The network deploys 24 satellites to determine the precise location of any object by triangulating its position between any two satellites to calculate its latitude and longitude.

The satellites' information is available to anyone with a GPS receiver. Shipping and marine systems were among the early adopters of the technology, with a GPS receiver initially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can buy one for a few bucks at Wal-Mart.

@Road has set its business model to service medium and small sized fleets, which includes businesses that need to maintain and communicate with up to thousands of vehicles. @Road can implement its solution quickly because, for one thing, there is no software to maintain.  The application runs on @Road's servers and within its data centers; and access to the information is available via a ubiquitous network–the Internet–through any web browser.  And @Road installs the units in the client's vehicles free of charge through a nationwide network of installers.

Of course what makes the timing of the service perfect is the emergence of small, portable WAP-enabled wireless devices that can pick up this information virtually anywhere.  

            This wireless capability takes package tracking to a new level.  Ultra X, a same-day package service specializing in time sensitive delivery uses the Web-based tracking capability of @Road to let its clients know exactly where any package as at any point in time–not just when it was put on the truck or when it arrived at the central dispatch area.  In addition, anyone who needs to know this information can receive the information on a cell phone or a pager.

            An example of this would be a refrigerator delivery where the recipient is typically given a four-hour window of when the truck might arrive.  Now, the recipient's pager can signal that his or her delivery is next, saving valuable time.

            To strengthen its position in the wireless space, @Road acquired HighNet, a company that provides location-smart services to mobile handsets and PDA's using the WAP standard designed to reformat Web pages for small devices.  The problem with many wireless applications, however, is that many Web sites need to be completely reworked to enable their data to flow to and be displayed within a wireless browser.

            To address this issue, @Road uses a proprietary, patented XML solution that reformats any Web site on the fly.  This way, if a client with a wireless device needs real-time traffic updates or the location of an ATM machine and that information is available only on a non-WAP enabled Web site, the @Road application can still make it available to its customer by converting it into an XML format.

            This solution will eventually serve to provide an integrated mobile yellow pages deriving information from a wide set of Web sites without the need to convert them to WAP-friendly formats.

            As you might imagine, @Road's strategy is to eventually penetrate not just the business-to-business space with its mobile fleet applications, but offer services to individual mobile customers as well.

            Its current partnerships are with a wide range of wireless service providers, through which it offers its business services by using the existing wireless networks for its data. Once the client has purchased the mobile unit and the optional data terminal, which are installed and maintained free of charge, the wireless Internet provider receives $39.95 per month per vehicle as a service charge, or $49.95 if there is a data terminal on board.  Presumably, @Road gets a portion of these charges.

            Currently, @Road's marketing alliances include Nextel, AT&T Wireless, Ameritech Cellular, Verizon and GTE Wireless. In most cases, these same networks will have other wireless customers, most likely first in the professional space, who will pay on a usage basis for some of the services only @Road can provide.

It's hard to convince people to pay $20 a month for a service offering ATM locations or restaurant reservations. But, on those occasions when they actually need it, it is pretty easy to get them to pay one or two dollars per use. 

            If, for example, you are a salesman on a call in an unfamiliar area, and you need cash or emergency traffic information to get to an appointment, you likely would pay a one-time charge to find an ATM machine or get around a traffic jam.

In these circumstances, conventional Web solutions are particularly cumbersome, because you still need to enter your location information.  But the GPS system already knows where you are–so you would probably pay a dollar or two to immediately receive the information you need pertinent to your emergency situation.

Eventually as technology improves and costs come down, @Road contemplates that even consumers will want to take advantage of location-sensitive wireless services, possibly to keep track of kids, find a good movie or restaurant, or track a gift for Mother's Day.

The other issue facing @Road is accuracy.  Until two months ago the GPS system was intentionally off by up to 100 meters because of a deliberate decision by the Defense Department to inhibit its precise use.  But this limitation was removed and now it is accurate down to 20-25 meters. But using enhanced systems on additional towers, @Road can offer its customers error-reduction technology to pinpoint location to within a meter.

            Who needs this level of precision? How about sanitation services. 

Now a garbage truck can report with complete confidence that a customer has not put his trashcan within the specified location for pickup on a certain date.

            @Road's roots are within the aerospace industry, where its founders cut their teeth on mission critical applications.  R&D began in 1996 when Rodric Fan and three other engineers from Loral and Lockheed, experts in satellite technology, realized the commercial potential of a GPS receiver with a high performance chipset to handle complex calculation.

Fan is @Road's founder and chief technology officer, and the author of four issued and numerous pending U.S. patents.  Two of the issued patents relate specifically to GPS technology, wireless communications and location-based Internet commerce applications.  Before founding @Road, Fan was the technical director for GPS-related projects and Global Star Satellites at Space Systems Loral, where he led the engineering team that successfully designed and implemented the satellite control electronics for the Global Star Satellite constellation, the first communication satellite system to use GPS receivers as an integral part of orbit control. 

            After leaving aerospace, Fan and his co-founders wanted to figure out the most potentially lucrative civilian application. Their research led them to the concept of fleet management, with the realization that many companies, large and small needed to locate and communicate more effectively with people in the field in a variety of vehicles.

@Road first offered its patented LocationSmart wireless Internet technology to provide a range of mobile intelligence services for businesses and consumers on the move. In 1998 @Road unveiled an Internet-based Mobile Resource Management (MRM) solution and built an open platform Application Program Interface (API for its mobile commerce industry partners interested in using the @Road patented technology).
            Beginning with its core of four engineers, the company grew to a couple of dozen in 1999 and then really took off with the technology's integration with the Internet, culminating in an IPO this September  (NASDAQ ARDI).  Currently the company employs about 320 people.

@Road has an agreement with Hitachi to roll out the system in Japan, where it will be adapted to the DOPA data network using Japanese maps and language. Again, the implementation will be with mobile fleets initially, with the intention to hit the professional and consumer market thereafter.

This latter phase is being marketed by @Road as ``myWeb2Go" and will be co-branded with services offered by @Road's existing and future wireless partners to the B2E–business-to-employee market.

            This is being targeted to a slightly different fleet scenario–perhaps a pharmaceutical company has 700 sales people always on the road with a PDA and/or a cell phone.  The fleet administrator will want to keep track of mileage for maintenance, and differentiate personal miles from business miles, so the company will put an iLM into each vehicle.

            In addition, the salesman will use the myWeb2Go systems for other business and personal situations–to locate an ATM or a restaurant for a client meeting, or to circumvent a traffic jam.  In each case, the iLM in the vehicle knows where he or she is, so that the information can be sent to any content provider using the proprietary XML technology, with the most up-to-date information returned to the user's cell phone or PDA.

            Eventually the scenario might even be reversed.  Content providers will want to know where the users are. The restaurant within the user's range may even send him or her a coupon or list of specials to lure a potential customer.  Tests on these marketing scenarios are in progress and @Road's ability to provide reliable location information no doubt will figure in the mix.

            So it won't be long before the Web doesn't just know who you are, but to ``serve you better," companies may even know where you are at any given time.

 

Tom Bunzel works as ``Painless PC," a consulting and training facility in West Los Angeles, specializing in business, presentation and Web-authoring applications. He can be reached at (310) 286-0969 or tom.bunzel@painlesspc.com. To find out more about Community Vision, go to http://www.painlesspc.com/cvi.html

 

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