Two years ago, when there was just a bunch of smart young people with no clients in an office under Westway in London, I wrote about the What3Words tracking app.
His product was so leftist that, while optimistic about its chances, I thought it might still fail.
What3Words divided the surface of the world into 57 tons of three-meter squares and gave each one a unique three-word name.
So if I arranged to meet you in, say, the pub near my office, the address “Firm.” Belong. Zooms ”would direct you to a specific part of the bar. “Shave. Pops. Sweet” placed me in the pub garden, near the fence.
According to What3Words, 75% of the world’s population does not have an official mailing address. His invention would help these people join the world of online shopping or direct a fire truck to their burning kitchen. Even in countries like Japan and the United Arab Emirates, they say, people sometimes run out of mailing addresses.
This week, What3Words will unveil the biggest hit of its short life. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, Mercedes will announce that the GPS of some new cars will integrate What3Words from 2018. Drivers will be able to find the three words of their destination on their smartphone, then type or pronounce those words in 14 languages to find an exact destination. .
The system is more accurate than UK postcodes, which most car GPS systems accept. Postal codes take you to a location that can have up to 100 premises. In the United States, the basic five-digit zip code can cover a large part of a city.
Founder Chris Sheldrick told me about the Mercedes deal over 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 in a car is recognized as a big problem,” said Mr. Sheldrick. “Turning the dials to select city and street names, or say ‘Church Road London’ when there are 14, that’s clearly not great.”
Mr. Sheldrick could have added that Mexico City has 632 streets called Juárez, 624 Hidalgo and some 500 called Zapata. With voice GPS input, pronunciation is another issue. Even most Britons are unaware that, for example, the city of Cambridgeshire Godmanchester is pronounced “Gumster”.
Mr. Sheldrick wouldn’t tell me how much Mercedes paid to use What3Words, or how the company is doing financially. But he said he was gaining credibility in Germany, where the Deutsche Bahn railway company is now an investor.
A deal with Mercedes may not signal much on the social inclusion front, but What3Words is making progress with its more altruistic apps as well.
Last year, Mongolian Post in Mongolia became the first national postal carrier to use What3Words. Sint Maarten’s postal services in the Caribbean, Djibouti, Solomon Islands, Côte d’Ivoire, Tonga and, more recently, Nigeria, followed suit.
Mongolia is the only territory where What3Words is operational. With almost no official mailing address, Mongol Post normally delivers letters to rented PO boxes at local post offices.
But the carrier was struggling to deliver packages from Amazon, local internet marketplace MMarket and even British online fashion retailer Asos. Many packages were returned to the US and UK undelivered.
Ganhuyag Chuluun Hutagt, the Mongol Post board member who persuaded the company to opt for the service, told me, “Mongolia has a nomadic culture. Much of the population is on the move. We used to use our names and our clan and addresses weren’t a problem. Then the Soviets abolished our surnames and built towns without street names. “
“Having an address is almost a human right, because without an address you are ignored by the government, you cannot receive basic services. “
Some nomads are receiving mail for the first time. Khan, the country’s largest bank, uses the service to send 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 difficult to find holes in the service. Addresses seem strange to the conservative eye, although URLs in the 1990s were too. This quirk could prevent large companies and countries from adopting the system. Critics have complained of overly restrictive terms and conditions.
And the company couldn’t find a way to personalize the addresses. If, say, Apple, wanted to name a place in its new headquarters “Apple.” Technology. Corporation, ”he couldn’t. This name is taken from a square in the South China Sea and cannot be changed.
But it’s only been four years since What3Words was just a glint in Mr. Sheldrick’s eyes. In a few years, it could be a Major. Business. Success – one place I see from my app is just off the A3 highway near Bandar Mahshahr in Iran.