David vs Goliath: Wifarer’s bold quest to out-map Google indoors

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Huge possibilities

The Royal BC Museum is a unique location, but you can imagine how helpful a setup like this could be in a variety of locations. Wifarer wants to work with each business and place and help link it to every customer who walks in the door. There are a plethora of untapped ideas it could explore in the future, once it has a few locations. Here are a few examples.

Airports: Airports are typically so poorly designed that it’s hard to find anything. And mobile service inside them is often hard to get. Since Wifarer doesn’t require a cellular data connection or GPS, it can still operate in the deepest recesses of an airport. You could instantly see all of the food vendors around your gate, or maybe even get updates on a flight — who knows.

Hospitals: Stanger told me of a study on one hospital that concluded that 200,000 hours a year were spent directing people to where they need to go. Doctors and nurses were bothered 10 times an hour, on average. An app like Wifarer probably won’t solve the problem since most people enter a hospital quite nervous, injured, sick, or anxious, but it could help considerably.

Universities: Imagine if you’re a freshman on a huge university campus. An app like this could replace the need to lug around a paper map (in 2012, this is still needed) to find a building; maybe every hall could have its own customized map.

Wifarer in-store navigation and coupons

Stores and Malls: Another obvious example, but Wifarer’s setup could actually work a lot like Foursquare and reward customers with coupons for entering a store. Businesses could also have an exact idea of how many people are coming to their store and what they might be interested in with metrics provided by Wifarer, though Stanger was quick to point out that he is quite aware of the privacy concerns related to geolocation, and doesn’t intend to stir up controversy (like Google is known to do). Larger stores could have their own maps and content as well.

Convention Centers: As a reporter, finding my way around an event like CES, E3, or CTIA can be a nightmare, and the maps at these events are often terrible. Conventions could have customized info about everyone who is attending with a system like this. The only challenge might be the Wi-Fi, which never seems to work at press events.

Amusement parks: Taking a trip to Disney World or a theme park? These places are a death trap if you don’t know your way around. Though many amusement parks are outdoors, an app like Wifarer could help you find bathrooms and plot out what rides you want to hit up first.

Unlike Google, Wifarer is hoping to work directly with businesses and venue owners to give them the tools to update their own indoor mapping experience, and make it their own maps. Businesses can choose to use Wifarer as much or as little as they want. Each participating venue has access to a content management system that lets them update their offerings with drag-and-drop menus, according to Stanger.

The challenge ahead

Wifarer Philip StangerThe number of challenges and potential competitors facing Wifarer are great. Each part of its business has its own set of competitors. On the mapping front, Google already has a head start. Google has 18 airports, 22 museums, Home Depot stores, Ikea stores, Macy’s stores, Bloomingdales stores, some Caesars Vegas venues, the Vallco Shopping mall in Cupertino, 16 MGM resorts, the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the Mall of America. That’s a daunting incumbent advantage. Wifarer only has a handful of locations right now. Cisco and Nokia have also shown indoor mapping solutions, and other startups like Shopkick, GateGuru, and Micello are all trying to edge their way into one corner or another of Wifarer’s grand plan. Then there’s Foursquare, Facebook, and Google (again), all of whom want a piece of the location check-in pie and hope to serve up location specific coupons. Widespread adoption isn’t going to come easy to Wifarer.

It can’t be fun trying to directly compete with Internet super-giants like Google. But each time I’ve spoken with him, Philip Stanger seems to have a humble and realistic viewpoint on the space. Though I can’t get over how scary it must be to try and compete against Google to map indoor spaces, Stanger seems confident that his approach is better — or at least a good alternative — for businesses and venues who want a degree of ownership over their maps.

“The indoor space really starts to close things down because [businesses] tend to get very skiddish about their spaces being used for this,” explained Stanger. “Once you do that, Google can monetize it however it wants. Some places don’t care. In fact, some places really don’t care. But some places really do…. And when they really do, we offer an alternative or a solution that gives you as good, if not better, granularity than Google does, but at the same time gives them ownership and control.”

Hopefully Wifarer won’t have too much trouble convincing more businesses to give it a try. I am looking forward to trying the app out here in New York City. Wifarer has a lot of potential.

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