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Zhiing

By   /   Thursday, November 13th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Zhiing

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Jon Ziskind knows how big the world is, and he doesn’t want people to get lost.

A former professional sailor, Ziskind traveled widely to compete in the America’s Cup, sailing’s most prestigious regatta. The sport relies heavily on Global Positioning System, or GPS, technology, so when Ziskind settled down, it made sense for him to found a company based on that technology’s increasing available in mobile phones.

 
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A former professional sailor, Ziskind traveled widely to compete in the America’s Cup, sailing’s most prestigious regatta. The sport relies heavily on Global Positioning System, or GPS, technology, so when Ziskind settled down, it made sense for him to found a company based on that technology’s increasing availably in mobile phones.

Santa Barbara-based Zos Communications has produced zhiing, a utility that lets users send their location from computers and mobile phones to other users, much like an e-mail or text message. The start-up employs about 15 people between its headquarters and a New York office and has raised about $1 million in venture capital so far.

Here’s how zhiing works: Users install an application on their iPhone or BlackBerry. The user presses a zhiing button and enters a friend’s phone number. The user’s location shows up on a friend’s phone in an e-mail like message, complete with a step-by-step map for the friend to follow.

GPS makes it all happen, though Zos has created workarounds for older phones and a browser add-on for sending locations from a computer to a phone. But the main thrust is to capitalize on increasingly widespread GPS-enabled smart phones in a growing industry called location-based services.

The idea, Ziskind explains, is to manage locations like e-mails. Zhiings, as Ziskind calls the location messages, are handled by a zhiing manager, which functions much somewhat like Microsoft Outlook any other e-mail manager. It’s all open source, so developers can build their own managers to send and receive zhiings.

As an industry, location-based services has a rocky past. In the late 1990s, hype surrounded it but died in the dot-com crash. It’s found some success in markets such as Hong Kong, where phone users walking by a business might receive a text-message coupon or advertisement.

But earlier this year, London-based ABI Research estimated the location-based services market would reach $13.3 billion by 2013, up from an estimated worth of $515 million in 2007.

Zos isn’t the only company in the space. Mountain View-based Loopt takes a social networking approach, using GPS technology to let friends track each other and send alerts when friends are near. The company recently inked a deal with a Qualcomm subsidiary.

But Ziskind is careful to point out that at least for now, Zos isn’t going into social networking, a crowded space these days. Instead, the idea is to take location-based services beyond the usual crowd of iPhone and BlackBerry-toting early adopters and to the masses.

“I think people are going to send locations like text messages,” Ziskind said in an interview, recalling the epiphany that stirred him to found Zos.

To facilitate its vision, Zos is rolling out compatibility with Nokia operating systems, Windows Mobile and Google’s new Android system by the end of the year.

“The iPhone has less than 1 percent of the world markets,” Ziskind said. “Nokia has 71 percent. It’s been our direction to be strong in the U.S. and play smart around the world.”

That’s a lofty vision, and Ziskind and his team are already working against a challenging environment. Like start-ups throughout the country, Zos got stung by a sharp contraction in venture capital in late September. Though Zos has raised $1 million, its Series A was slated for $2 million.

“We’re fundraising now as hard as we can,” Ziskind said. “We were half way through our first round, but then the economy collapsed. About $1 million evaporated overnight.

“It’s been hard sleeping since October,” he added. “Every person is doing the job of three people.”

But Zos has a business plan for making money in a downturn. Its system can send zhiings in reverse or even track users, a capability Ziskind intends to market to large companies looking to track sales or delivery forces.

He’s already offered it to emergency services operators with some success. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department, which currently uses hard copies of a map book to find its way, has agreed to give the zhiing system a try, Ziskind said.

The zhiing system is in testing with ambulance drivers in New York City, where it beats the current laptop-based location system by an average of two minutes and has likely contributed to saving lives, Ziskind said. “That’s more of an accomplishment than sailing,” he said.

Though the economy looks choppy ahead, Ziskind is feeling confident. He attributes some of that to having chased his dream of sailing from childhood to the world’s most famous competition.

“You have to go after it yourself because it’s not a very big sport here,” Ziskind said. “It’s kind of like an entrepreneurial start-up.”

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