A Boston company that builds location-based services for cellphones is lowering the bar for entrepreneurs to launch mobile widgets in the wireless world, whether it's NearBio, a mobile application that finds the closest biodiesel pumps, or Everytrail, a GPS widget that maps hikes and rides.
ULocate Communications Inc., which raised $11 million earlier this year, yesterday launched a contest for developers who use uLocate's Where platform -- offering cash prizes and meetings with three venture capital firms to the people who create the most innovative mash-ups of location and mobile content.
Normally, designing programs for the cellphone that leverage information like a user's location can be next to impossible for a lone entrepreneur. Small start-ups would need to strike their own deals with carriers and learn the ins and outs of pro gramming for dozens of different phones on a handful of different networks. The Where platform helps solve those problems, automatically porting programs onto GPS-capable handsets and publishing them on networks that can reach millions of users.
"Typically, developing a mobile GPS application is something that would take six to 12 months for a developer," said uLocate's vice president of marketing, Dan Gilmartin. "We've created this platform to simplify the process, to eliminate the technical barriers for people."
The Where platform is available on Sprint and Alltel phones for $2.99 a month, and already offers applications that range from useful to inexplicable. Some showcase the power of automatically incorporating GPS information with the Web -- the Eventful widget, for instance, alerts people to nearby events; ShopLocal allows people to find out whether they could get a better deal at a store two blocks away; GasBuddy compares prices at nearby gas stations. Other applications are merely odd -- the World's Largest widget lets people know if the world's biggest buffalo or oversized hockey stick and puck are nearby, while the US Rep widget gives people on-the-go information about their elected officials.
The goal with the contest is to open the platform further -- stimulating the kind of inventive services that have become commonplace online.
It's a move that mirrors the track online social network Facebook took earlier this year, allowing developers to create widgets -- like drawing virtual graffiti on friends' profiles or letting people share their virtual bookshelves -- that can easily spread to thousands, or millions, of people.
"It's hard to break into this market -- you have some very powerful players -- carriers, device vendors," said Chris Hazelton, a senior analyst of mobile device technology and trends at analyst firm IDC Corp. who will be one of the contest judges. ULocate simplifies that process by creating a platform that any Web developer can use, without having to worry about building relationships with the carriers or worrying about which phone the application will run on.
Ultimately, wireless providers must approve any application that shows up on the Where platform, but the goal is to create an assortment of simple services that easily tie location together with the same kind of endless information on the Internet -- from weather reports to the nearest winery.
"We'd take any good content, any interesting application, and bring them all to the carriers, to bring them to market," Gilmartin said.
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.