Microsoft patents ‘avoid ghetto’ GPS feature

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg


Stroll safely with the world’s largest software company.

In hopes of making its Windows Phone 7 platform more pedestrian-friendly, Microsoft Corp. was issued a patent in the United States last week related to the mapping technology in its smartphone software. Specifically, the invention allows for safety, weather and terrain conditions to be taken into account when giving walking directions.

Because “unsafe neighbourhoods” are among the conditions accounted for, it has already been dubbed the ‘avoid the ghetto’ option. However, the language of the patent filing suggests the purpose of the new feature — which is expected to be included in upcoming smartphone models from Samsung Corp, HTC Corp., LG and Nokia Corp. — is far more broad.

“Commonly, the pedestrian route is produced based off security information, weather information, terrain information, or a combination thereof,” reads part of the Redmond, Wash.-based company’s submission to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“Various features can integrate with route presentment, such as integrating an advertisement targeted to a pedestrian with a direction set.”

So if you’re following the route established by your Windows smartphone and it takes you past a health food store, don’t be offended if the device points out the sale on low-fat protein bars.

But aside from drawing awe from advertisers and ire from certain neighbourhoods, the new feature may also carry some dangerous legal implications. As CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk asks:

“What if someone using a route from this system does get mugged, shot, assaulted, or robbed? Would they feel entitled to sue Microsoft because the route was supposed to be ‘ghetto-free’?”

Beyond the headache that question is certain to cause a few corporate lawyers, the move is actually perfectly in line with Microsoft’s long-term smartphone strategy.

First, pedestrian-focused offerings have long been avoided in mobile mapping software (just ask Google Inc., which was sued after someone followed their walking directions onto a busy highway and was hit by a car). So the invention represents a clear attempt to differentiate the Microsoft product from its rivals.

Beyond that, the feature will also help the company market Windows Phone products in emerging markets. Considering the billion-dollar smartphone tie up the company has with Nokia Corp., which remains dominate in such markets, and the following excerpt from the patent filing itself, it would seem making Windows Phone 7 more appealing to users in the developing world is the true goal.

“There has been a long felt need for route generation towards individuals that do not commonly travel by vehicle,” the company said.

“For instance, many economically challenged areas are populated with individuals that do not own motorized vehicles and generally travel by walking.”

So the technology doesn’t just want to avoid the ‘ghetto.’ It wants to avoid cars.

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