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Tracking manufacturers map out future

Developers of location-tracking services say they're making some headway into the consumer market, but a shortage in handsets that connect to the technology could hamper their plans.

BURLINGAME, Calif.--Developers of location-tracking services say they're finally making some headway into the consumer market, but a shortage in handsets that connect to the technology could hamper their plans.

Industry leaders gathering Thursday for the GPS-Wireless 2003 conference here said so-called location-based technology is moving beyond niche services such as Wherify Wireless' child finder devices and Autodesk's software that pinpoints shipments that go astray. Newer services are offering consumers everything from finding a potential mate to personal mobile maps.

Online dating service, for instance, recently announced its 8 million registered users can now find each other using AT&T Wireless' location technology. People can determine a potential suitor's approximate geographical location by using their wireless phones. And in March, car rental company Avis will kick off its "Avis Assist" service in Dallas and Dulles, Va., which determines a person's location and reads turn-by-turn directions out loud over a Motorola phone. Location-based services rely on Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which uses satellites in space to transmit location data to devices on Earth.

Similar plans from other companies are under way. One of the biggest breakthroughs in the technology this year: A major U.S. telephone company will launch a cell phone 411 service that pinpoints a person's location, said Joe Astroth, vice president of Autodesk's location products.

Nonetheless, "Avis Assist" is a good example of just how much promise these new applications have--but how far they still have to go. The majority of Avis customers have cell phones. But the company still is forced to rent phones because less than 1 percent of the world's billion wireless phones have the appropriate gear inside, according to an Avis representative.

Analysts recently estimated that there are 10 million GPS handsets being sold now. There are about 140 million cell phones in the United States, and a billion worldwide. Verizon Wireless, Nextel Communications and Sprint PCS are some of the few companies that sell location-enabled phones. Qualcomm makes most of the cell phone GPS chips.

David Rudd, a spokesman for handset maker Motorola, said companies need to see a demand before committing to making large quantities of a product. However, he said, demand for location phones may pick up.

"Avis is the first we're seeing of commercial interest. Everyone will eventually find use for it," Rudd said.

Another factor is that wireless carriers haven't completely readied their networks. The Federal Communications Commission tasked carriers in 1996 with providing a way for emergency call centers to know the whereabouts of cell phones dialing 911. Carriers are starting to focus on meeting the mandate--and very slowly at that--rather than developing applications to sell to customers, said Dana Thorat, a wireless analyst at IDC.

Carriers are "sticking to their core competencies," said Timothy Neher, chief executive officer of Wherify Wireless. "For the consumer, it'll be five years before (location tracking) is in a lot of people's lives."

But still, a few carriers aren't as reluctant. AT&T is likely to launch a location 411 service this year, and Nextel Communications is expected to launch a tracking service soon.

Thorat believes once the handsets are readily available, the market will develop, especially with the recent release of new location software.

By 2006, about 52 million people will be using Avis Assist and other commercial location services, generating $2.7 billion in the United States, Thorat said. For now, revenue generated by consumers using location services is essentially zero, she said.

Autodesk's Astroth believes most wireless carriers will implement the technology sooner rather than later.

Similar networks already have been up and running in Italy since October, where mobile carrier Telecom Italia Mobile is offering what is essentially a "panic button" for cell phones. Push the appropriate keypad combination, and a voice on the other end will offer things like travel directions, the nearest hospital or other location-related items, he said.

"I don't believe we have to wait five years," he said. "2003 will be the year of deal-making and deployment."