Posts tagged ‘google’

Google gives us a little Latitude – so what?

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, or don’t use Twitter (I think those two things are more or less equivalent), you’ll know that a few days ago, Google unleashed Latitude on an unsuspecting world.

What’s Latitude? A new feature in Google Maps that displays the location of your friends on the map. Simple, really. It gets the location from a mobile Gmaps client (version 3.0, currently available for S60, Windows Mobile, Android and Blackberry. Note no iPhone/iPod Touch yet).  The client uses whatever technology is available on the handset for location discovery – cellID, GPS or wifi hotspot ident. It sends the currently detected location to Google servers every so often, and your authorised friends can see where you are on their own mobile client or an iGoogle widget.

Depending on your approach to these things, Latitude is one or more of:

  • Really exciting
  • Scary as hell due to privacy concerns
  • Not much use without an API and third-party apps
  • Nothing new

Dealing with the last point first – well, Latitude isn’t doing anything that you can’t already do with a combination of existing tools and services. Brightkite provides a location-cum-social-network mashup, which only lacks the automatic update feature to be as good, if not better, than Latitude. Yahoo’s Fire Eagle is a location-sharing platform with a rich API and set of security features, ready to integrate with mobile clients and other applications.  (Other applications are available). But Google is past-master at doing something that has always been possible, but doing it in a highly scalable, user-centric Google-ish way, and running off with market share in the process. Gmail is the obvious example.

Is Latitude exciting? Yes, without doubt. It brings the principle of visual social location tracking closer to mass-market availability. It also acts as a pathfinder to stimulate discussion on the privacy issues that are doing the rounds, and a catalyst for futher innovation both by Google and smaller parties.

Is it scary? Only if you let it. Latitude will only share your location with people you specifically tell it to. You choose who you invite and whose invitations you accept. Even if you do share, you get to choose whether to restrict the location information shared to city-level, or disclose full details. And you can do this per friend. So if you choose to share with someone you don’t know, and they turn out to be a stalker or a burglar, that’s down to your poor judgement. Nobody did it for you.

The further privacy question is – should you share your location with Google? That’s up to you. Your mobile network already knows your location whenever the phone’s switched on, so I don’t see any extra risk. Google has, as usual, a list of FAQs on this and other issues, in which they state they don’t accumulate historic data about your position, they simply register the latest update.

I think the most interesting question about Latitude is the one about APIs and third party apps. Latitude itself is very cute, but after you’ve spent a few hours adding friends and seeing whether they’re skiving at home during the unseasonable weather, what are you going to do with it next? The true value in location information is the ability to mash it up with other data, track it over time, and generally make use of it in innovative ways. You can’t do this with Latitude – until they release an API. Contrast this with Yahoo Fire Eagle, which is a platform the consists entirely of a secure API to allow location information to be brokered and shared with whichever applications the user authorises.

Here’s an example. My next bright  idea is a hosted application that sends you an SMS when a nominated other individual approaches a specific location. I can use this to get a message to my partner that I’m going to need a lift home from the station shortly, without having to wake up early from my commuter nap. That’s a very easy thing to do using Fire Eagle as a back-end broker, provided I have a mobile client that updates Fire Eagle. But I can’t do it with Latutude because it doesn’t have an API for my application to use to look up my location. (The more observant and knowledgeable reader will know that Brightkite has some functionality like this built in. I said it was just an example…).

My conclusion, then, is that Latitude is a Good Thing. It gets people talking about location-based services, brings the privacy issues to the fore, and lets people like me speculate about fancy new capabilities. It will doubtless be developed further, hopefully in the areas that early users have already identified – an API to allow third-party apps, and the ability to integrate with other location-aware applications and platforms, such as Fire Eagle.

I’m looking forward to it.

Update: Added a trackback to this post on Mobile Industry Review by Rummble‘s Andrew Scott. Pretty much says it all.


February 6, 2009 at 6:47 pm 1 comment meets twitter meets IM at

It’s a real-time with IM, Google Notebook and Twitter built in. No, really. That’s what feels like. It’s a browser within a browser, in which you do your everyday surfing, but round the outside you see what your friends and the public are browsing. And they see yours. You get lists of the most popular sites (which you can vote thumbs-up and thumbs-down on), you can clip a site to your personal notebook, and leave comments against a site. There’s an IM facility to send real-time messages to fellow browsers, too.

What’s it for? Well I’ve found a few interesting sites already, been reminded about some that have dropped off my radar, and generally had fun following other people around the web.

You’d probably not use it for visiting stuff that you don’t want the world to know about – but for formal or informal collaboration it’s a great new way to approach the same kind of sharing that, Google Reader and Twitter provide.

Go on, have a go. And add me as a friend so I can see what you’re up to.

July 30, 2008 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

Google browser sync lives!

One of the things I really missed when I upgraded to Firefox 3 was the Google Browser Sync plug-in. I share my life around a number of computers, and Browser Sync allowed me to syncronise my favourites, cookies, stored passswords etc across all of my computers. Until, that is, Google decided not to upgrade the plug-in for Firefox 3.

Good news, though – Ostatic reports that Google has released the Browser Sync code as an open source project. Lets’ hope someone more Javascript-skilled than me (wouldn’t be hard) picks it up and releases it for FF3.

July 14, 2008 at 8:43 am Leave a comment

Google mini lives on

It seems my suggestion that the Google mini search appliance had reached the end of the line was wrong – serves me right for believing Arrington 🙂 In a new article, Techcrunch is reporting that Google announced a new Hosted Site Search offering at the same time as announcing upgrades to the mini appliance.

June 3, 2008 at 5:21 am Leave a comment

Phorm by any other name

It seems that Phorm, who have created a huge rumpus in the UK and Europe with their system for tracking a user’s browsing habits and allowing partner websites to serve up relevant ads, are not the only people in the game.

A recap… Phorm’s WebWise product relies on installing a device in an ISP’s network that ‘sniffs’ individual user’s browsing activity (albeit anonymously), and then when the user visits one of Phorm’s partner publisher sites, uses the accumulated history to select an appropriate ad to show. For example, if the user had been looking at motoring websites recently, they might see an ad for cars when another user who looks at sports sites might see an ad for sports coverage on pay TV.

The benefits claimed for various parties are thus:

  • This ad will be more relevant to the user than a default ad would be, thus enhancing the user’s experience and annoying them less – peoples’ tolerance for relevant ads is higher than their tolerance for irrelevant ones
  • An anti-phishing filter is built-in (not sure how this integrates with the rest of the service)
  • A more relevant ad should provide a better click-through and conversion rate for the advertiser, increasing their ROI
  • As a result the publishers of the website on which the ad was shown should get a better return on their ad inventory.
  • The ISP, normally not party to the advertising model, can start to share in ad revenue
  • Phorm invented it and make money at all stages.

This all seems like a win-win until the P-word is mentioned… Privacy, of course. The whole thing only works when a user’s ISP collects data about them and allowing other parties to access this data. Depending on your sensitivity to online privacy issues, this is somewhere on the scale from innocuous to the work of the devil. Phorm’s initial ISP customers in the UK (BT Retail, CPW and Virgin Media) have indicated that they’ll provide the ability for a user to opt-out of using Phorm, but since many won’t even notice it’s there, privacy campaigners have suggested that the whole thing should be opt-in instead… this would mean a significantly lower penetration for all parties and perhaps make the whole thing unviable. The ISPs will be very sensitive to anything that might cause their users to consider churning to a rival service.

Phorm’s response to the privacy issue is robust; they’re confident they don’t breach any privacy legislation and are pushing ahead.

So, back to the plot… Phorm are not the only players in this area, and not the only ones causing controversy, either. In a Wired article, Ryan Singel writes about a plan by Charter Communications, one of the largest US broadband providers, to roll out technology from NebuAd. This appears to be similar to Phorm’s product. Charter’s plans have already come to the attention of 2 high-profile Congressmen as reported elswhere on Wired, who are not going to  be fobbed off with anything less that cast-iron guarantees of user privacy and compliance with relevant US legislation. The Congressmens’ question centres around the nature of a user’s consent to the service – just like Phorm, the Charter/NebuAd scheme offers an opt-out to each individual user, although there appears to be confusion about the technical nature of this – NebuAd’s opt-out page tells the user that they have to accept an ‘opt-out cookie’ – and by the nature of cookies, some part of the user’s traffic has to have hit a NebuAd server before they can act on it. So what is the user opting out of? Certainly the display of targetted ads, but the privacy issue is around the collection and sharing of data, and the jury’s out on that part.

Users have been shown targetted ads for years – a large site selects ads based on its own knowledge of the user’s behaviour on that site. A site which is a member of one of the large ad networks allows the network to track users with cookies to help target ads. Google shows ads related to the search terms you typed, and AdWords ads based on the content of the page you’re looking at. Gmail shows you ads based on the content of your email inbox. None of this is new. But what’s different here is the collection of data within the ISP network, without the explicit consent of the user, and sharing with unknown parties. It’s probably the way of the future – it’s not going to get un-invented, but it’s not going to be deployed without a fight.

May 18, 2008 at 9:54 am 3 comments

End of the line for Google Mini-appliance?

Techcrunch is reporting a rumour that Google is ramping down on production and sales of its mini search appliance, in favour of a new SME-targetted virtual service delivered from the cloud.

If true, this makes all kind of sense. The GSAs have always been an odd fit with Google’s strategy, involving a very labour-intesnsive sales and implementation process. One can see that the high-end product is necessary in large enterprises to preserve data privacy, but smaller orgs tend to be less sensitive to these issues and can easily be served by a cloud-based service. Hence the transfer of focus away from the tin is logical all round – the customer doesn’t need to maintain it, Google doesn’t need to have it manufactured; the service can be switched on pretty-much instantaneously. A much lower barrier to entry.

Lets’ see if it’s true.

May 16, 2008 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

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