Three-word app addresses Mercedes and postal-free Mongolia www.ft.com
Two years ago, when it was just a bunch of smart young people with no clients in an office under London’s Westway, I wrote about the location app What3Words.
Its product was so left-field that, although optimistic about its chances, I thought it might yet fail.
What3Words divided the world’s surface into 57tn three-metre squares and gave a unique, three-word name to each.
So if I arranged to meet you in, say, the pub by my office, the address “Firm. Belong. Zooms” would direct you to a specific part of the bar. “Shave. Pops. Sweet” would place me in the pub garden, by the fence.
According to What3Words, 75 per cent of the world’s population has no formal postal address.Its invention would help those people to join the world of online shopping, or to direct a fire engine to their burning kitchen. Even in countries such as Japan and the United Arab Emirates, they say, people sometimes lack postal addresses.
This week, What3Words will reveal the biggest success of its short life. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, Mercedes will announce that the GPS in some new cars will incorporate What3Words from 2018. Drivers will be able to find their destination’s three words on their smartphone, then type or speak those words in 14 languages to find an exact destination.
The system is more accurate than UK postcodes, which most car GPS systems accept. Postcodes take you to a spot which can include as many as 100 premises. In the US, the basic five-digit Zip Code can cover much of a town.
Founder Chris Sheldrick told me about the Mercedes deal on the phone from Tanzania, as he was about to give a TED Talk on how the app could help the developing world.
“The question of how to put an address into a car is recognised to be a big pain point,” Mr Sheldrick said. “Twisting dials to select town and street names, or saying ‘Church Road London’ when there are 14, clearly isn’t great.”
Mr Sheldrick might have added that Mexico City has 632 streets named Juárez, 624 Hidalgo and some 500 called Zapata. With spoken GPS input, pronunciation is another problem. Even most British people do not know that, for example, the Cambridgeshire town Godmanchester is pronounced “Gumster”.
Mr Sheldrick would not tell me how much Mercedes has paid to use What3Words, or how the company is doing financially. But he did say it is gaining credibility in Germany, where the railway company Deutsche Bahn is now an investor.
A deal with Mercedes may not signal much on the social inclusivity front, but What3Words is also making progress with its more altruistic applications.
Last year, Mongolia’s Mongol Post became the first national mail carrier to use What3Words. Postal services on Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, Djibouti, Solomon Islands, Ivory Coast, Tonga and, most recently, Nigeria, have followed.
Mongolia is the only territory where What3Words is up and running. With almost no formal postal addresses, Mongol Post normally delivers letters to rented PO boxes at local post offices.
But the carrier was struggling to deliver packages from Amazon, the local internet marketplace MMarket and even Asos, the British online fashion retailer. Many parcels were returned to the US and UK undelivered.
Ganhuyag Chuluun Hutagt, the Mongol Post board member who persuaded the company to go with the service, told me: “Mongolia has a nomadic culture. Much of the population is on the move. We used to go by our names and clan and addresses were not an issue. Then the Soviets abolished our family names and built cities without street names.”
“Having an address is almost a human right, because without an address you are overlooked by government, you can’t receive basic services.”
Some nomads are receiving mail for the first time. Khan, the country’s biggest bank, uses the service to send out credit cards. Pizza Hut promotes it for deliveries. And if you rent a yurt through Airbnb, the owners will now give you the location in a What3Words address.
It is still not hard to pick holes in the service. The addresses look odd to the conservative eye, although so did URL addresses in the 1990s. This quirk might stop big companies and countries from adopting the system. Critics have complained about overly restrictive terms and conditions.
And the company has not found a way to customise addresses. If, say, Apple, wanted to name a spot in its new headquarters “Apple. Technology. Corporation”, it could not. That name is taken by a square in the South China Sea and cannot be changed.
But it is still only four years since What3Words was just a gleam in Mr Sheldrick’s eye. In another couple of years it could be a Major. Business. Success — a spot I see from my app is just off the A3 highway near Bandar Mahshahr in Iran.