Posts tagged ‘LBS’

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


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