I've been playing with geotagging, GPS, etc while in Paris. On the geowanking mailing list there's been a fascinating discussion of DRM applied to geodata. Geodata is such a new field that at the moment it's mostly DRM-free. Then again there's not much good data, either, and what exists is jealously hoarded. Here's a bit I wrote for the list about my fears of the future.

Let's say I buy a GPS device from Gargellan to help me be a tourist. It comes with all sorts of cool data telling me which places to go, where to eat, some nice walking tours with useful audio annotations, etc. The device itself is dirt cheap, say $50, but Gargellan sells me the data on a subscription basis for $5 a day. Sort of an iPod for GPS.

My fear is what restrictions that device and the data will have on it. Will I be able to merge in other data from openstreetmap or wikimapia to augment my tourist wanderings? Will I be able to export the walking tour I took to Flickr so I can easily annotate my photos? Am I stuck with the Zagat restaurant ratings that Gargellan made a deal to supply, or can I buy Michelin ratings too even though Gargellan doesn't like Michelin?

If the GPS device market follows the music player market, I fear the answer to my questions will be "no". Because Gargellan's business model will demand that they not let me use the data the way I want. Cheap-device expensive-data is a very common business model, but it's technically fragile because it relies on the data staying expensive. For the past ten years tech companies have increasingly been turning to DRM to try to keep that data expensive. And DRM sucks; not because I have to pay (I don't mind), but because I in turn can't do useful things with the data.

We can be purists and say we will only use non-proprietary devices and free data. But that's an uphill battle. In the meantime commercial companies are going to be designing the hardware and software that ordinary people will be using. Will those products be awful closed platforms like cell phones? Or open friendly platforms like pre-trusted-computing PCs? Or somewhere inbetween?

  2006-10-17 07:42 Z