Bargains by cell phone

An Israeli start-up has a new algorithm that tells you exactly where the bargains are in the mall, as well as the people you want to meet. The staff at Mobi-App offer users location-based services indoors. From left to right: …

An Israeli start-up has a new algorithm that tells you exactly where the bargains are in the mall, as well as the people you want to meet.

Mobi-App team
The staff at Mobi-App offer users location-based services indoors. From left to right: Alon Gamliel, Yoni Kahana, Ra’anan Nevet.

Shopping is a hit-or-miss activity. How do you know where to find the best buys? Maybe the product you’re all set to purchase is cheaper at the store across the street? Agonize no longer. A new application can send information about the big bargains directly to your cell phone – so long as you’re shopping at a mall where they use Israeli start-up Mobi-App’s new application, Mingler.

“Until now, it’s been almost impossible to provide location-based services indoors, which is how this information is usually distributed, so stores in malls have not been able to distribute coupons and news on sales to customers, except via SMS, which costs too much money,” says Yoni Kahana, CEO of Mobi-App, based in southern Israel in Sde-Boker.

“With Mingler, customers and participants at malls, trade shows, and conferences taking place indoors can join a local, social network that will give them the information they need about bargains, programs, and meetings on their cell phone, without having to pay for phone company services like SMS messages, Internet, or GPS.”

The secret is in the algorithm

You’d think that in this day and age it would be a simple matter to distribute information to anyone who wants it, but apparently that is not the case. To push information to someone, you have to be able to zero-in on their devices. Distributing information on a website is one solution, but that requires extra work from shoppers or participants at a conference.

Another possibility is to distribute information and updates via GPS technology. The problem there is that not all devices have built-in GPS, not to mention that it doesn’t work indoors, which makes GPS the wrong solution for malls and conferences. SMS is ruled out because messages cost money, and most users are unlikely to sign up for an information service they have to pay for.

We’re down to Wifi and Bluetooth protocols, but although they do work indoors, they can only function within limited areas – unless they have the advantage of Mobi-App’s special algorithms and code to extend their range. In that case, information can be distributed to everyone, whether they are just a few steps away from a store uploading a discount coupon to mall shoppers, or at the other side of the building. Users simply install the Mingler application on their devices, and they’re good to go.

The application, which is often branded for a particular site or event, is installed at user request, and the updates are pushed to user devices whenever they are on the premises. “When a person walks into a venue, they get an offer on their cell phone to join Mingler, and if they agree, they receive updates. Users can define themselves by age, sex, or other criteria, and venue managers can send specific messages to each group.”

In a mall, that means that coupons and other offers can be sent to a store’s target audience, while at a conference, groups with specific interests can receive automatic schedule updates for meetings. The first version of Mobi-app runs on Symbian phones, and Kahana says that versions for other platforms should be ready in the coming months.

Up and running

Mobi-App has been in business for about a year and a half, and began deploying its application in the spring. “We’ve been testing it in small groups, and we’ve run it at several conferences in Israel,” Kahana recounts, including at the Telecom 2010 conference in Tel Aviv in July, and the High-Tech Israel Association conference in Jerusalem in May.

The app has also been deployed in several Tel Aviv restaurants/bars, and, since July, customers at the Renanim Mall in Ra’anana have been able to sign up for sales and offers via Mingler.

For now, the Mingler network is closed and local when deployed, but future versions of the application will allow users to connect to Facebook and LinkedIn databases, enabling them to see which of their friends or connections are present.

And, of course, there’s the social networking aspect of the technology; users can seek out others by specifying criteria and their location within the venue, similar to services like Foursquare – except that they’ll be able to specify exactly where they are in the mall or the conference, without having to connect via the Internet or rely on GPS.

Kahana, who has a unique background in both computer science and marketing, built the Mingler application along with his two partners, CTO Ra’anan Nevet and R&D head Alon Gamliel, and his staff of five. So far, the company has received funding from the office of the Chief Scientist, and from the Ma’ayan Ventures venture capital fund, as well as from several private investors.

Development is set to continue: “We are working on some major deployments abroad,” Kahana reveals. “This is a unique, patented technology that promises to solve a major problem for conference organizers and mall management.”