How Siri could help boost location-based services

Location-based apps have gotten a lot of attention but they still seem to have a tougher time cracking the mainstream, according to a recent survey by Forrester, which found that only five percent of U.S. online adults use location-aware apps at least once a month. That’s up slightly from last year, but location-based services aren’t yet close to being everyday tools for most.

I’ve been thinking about how these services can accelerate their growth. One of the most intriguing possibilities is the emergence of more voice-enabled artificial intelligence assistants like Apple’s Siri(s aapl). A lot of apps could make use of Siri or similar technology as a shortcut for all kinds of actions, letting people speak naturally to accomplish tasks that might be harder to access using touch input. But I think location-based services specifically could benefit most from Siri and whatever equivalents Google (s goog) or Microsoft (s msft) put together on their mobile platforms. We’re already seeing some of that promise in action with voice-activated navigation services, and Siri can already pull up nearby restaurants using Yelp. But there’s a lot more that can be done.

Quickly scan the surrounding world

It seems like a lot of people appreciate location-based services when they try them, but the act of accessing these apps can be a couple steps too much. Smartphone users are slowly warming to the idea of checking-in to locations, but even I sometimes don’t like going through the process of waking my phone, opening up Foursquare, picking the check-in button, selecting a place and then confirming my check-in. Yet I do appreciate the chance to record my whereabouts and see specials nearby. Just pressing the home button on my iPhone 4S and saying “check-into McDonalds” eliminates much of the fuss while providing all of the benefit.

This could work for all kinds of other deal and offer services, which is one of the main things that people appreciate about location-based services. If I could just ask Siri what deals are nearby, it could make it much more easy to discover offers around me. I could also do it to find where my friends are or see what points of interests are nearby. There are other apps that are dedicated to this but most have trouble getting every day use. Making these activities easier will definitely have an impact on adoption.

Making complex tasks easy

I talked to Dennis Crowley, co-f0under at Foursquare, who said he was immediately struck by the possibilities of using Siri with location-based services. He said Siri could not only call up simple actions quickly, but it could handle a lot more complex location-based tasks with ease. For example, users could ask Siri to go find a restaurant a friend previously mentioned, or pull up a restaurant they visited last month. Or they could conduct more complicated searches for nearby locations that would be harder to conduct by touch. He said Siri could be combined with Foursquare’s Radar function, which pushes out information to users based on their location. Siri alone, won’t boost location-based services, but it could be a big enabler, according to Crowley.

“Siri can help unlock the power of a lot of apps,” he said. “It’s not the thing that will get 100 million people to use location-based services but it’s a way of taking what a lot of us are doing with apps and making it more accessible for people.”

Other ways to unlock location based services

There are other ways for location-based apps to gain adoption. Ted Morgan, CEO of location-technology provider Skyhook, told me he’s excited about some of the background location processing and location-based reminders available in platforms like iOS 5. He said the current approaches to background location-tracking burn through too much battery, but he’s expecting better tools to become available next year. I agree this is one cool way to bring the power of location-based services to life.

We’ve written about the dawning era of persistent location and the increasing ability to get real-time offers pushed out to users such as the oft-used example of walking by a Starbucks (s sbux) and getting a coupon. But I think there’s room for Siri and other intelligent voice-systems to work in between the pulling we currently do and the pushing of information that comes with persistent location tracking.

Pushing can be great for certain people, but it might not work for consumers who don’t want to be constantly tracked. Privacy is still a big concern for consumers and a major barrier to adoption for location tools. And there’s also the potential that location-based offers could also become annoying as they multiply. But with a system like Siri, users could access the tools they want when they want them, without having to be worried about privacy or getting bombarded by location-based offers as they walk from block-to-block.

When do developers get a shot?

Developers would need access to the Siri API (something they lack currently) or the equivalent on other platforms. The potential of that access has Crowley and many other developers chomping at the bit. It’s not enough to have a smart voice assistant built-in to your own product; having it integrated at the OS level means you can access it with one touch when the phone is asleep. I checked out a new Siri rival on Android called Cluzee recently and it had some location-functions like checking-into Foursquare using Foursquare’s API. But besides the fact that the Cluzee app needs a lot of work, the fact that I had to fire it up to access these functions cut down on its usefulness. Being able to just grab a phone, tell it what to do and discover the world around you with one button press, that’s what’s truly powerful.