Are Location Based Services "Catching On?"

Today's New York Times notes that, according to a report from Pew, "Location Services Have Not Caught On." The article points out a recent study from Pew which indicates, among other things, that four percent of online adults use location-based services (LBS) at all, and one percent use them on any given day. As a result of this headline, Twitter is currently afire with reports of the demise of LBS. I read the actual report from Pew's Internet & American Life project, and it is a fine piece of survey research. Pew, to their endless credit, does not color their findings with words like "only;" rather, they report the data without judgment.

The slant on this data, that "only" four percent of online adults use these services, is a natural inclination when we see small numbers. In the case of the four percent, however, I submit that how you process this number is dependent upon how you frame it. If I compare LBS users to all online Americans, I can come up with a figure of four percent. If I framed it against the whole planet, I could probably report a number like .0001%. It really depends on the story I want to tell.

To me, four percent is still a lot of people, because I would frame it differently. While the figures vary, the percentage of all Americans with smartphones is between 20 and 25% (most recent data can be found from Nielsen, comScore and Pew, among others.) While I haven't seen a figure for the percentage of Americans who own GPS or GPS-A enabled smartphones, logically it can't be more than a quarter of Americans, and indeed is probably closer to half that. Let's be charitable, however, and say it's 15% of Americans. What I'd like to know is the percentage of those persons - i.e., the Americans who can readily use mobile LBS services - who do so. If you frame it that way, the number likely looks quite a bit different.

It is true that this percentage does not seem to have grown since Pew last reported this number back in May, but one has to also know the growth of GPS-enabled phone ownership over that period of time to understand that trend. It is also true that it is possible to use location-based sites and services without at least GPS-A functionality (by manually reporting location, perhaps, or by checking in via a browser), but again - we don't know how many people do that, either.

I'm not sold myself on LBS becoming ubiquitous - but the cap on this number currently is not the number of online adults, which the reporting all seems to be based to, but the number of Americans who are actually able to "check in" to an out-of-home location. This is the number we don't know, but should, before we sound the death knell of LBS.