Thursday, February 5, 2009

Will Latitude Succeed Where Spatial Social Networking Trailblazers Failed?

When I first saw what is now released as Google Latitude a few months after joining Google, I'll admit I was a little surprised.

I guess my first exposure to this concept was the awesome Loopt presentation at Where 2.0 in 2007.

I was a Verizon subscriber at the time, with a clunky Windows Mobile 5 phone and a pain-in-the-butt Bluetooth GPS and there was no Loopt application or service on my platform.

It wasn't until BrightKite came along that I was able to painfully start sending my position out to the world and make stalking me a little easier for everyone.

I liked BrightKite, and liked how I was able to integrate the position with Facebook and even Yahoo's FireEagle.

I loved the idea of sharing where I was with friends but there was a problem; my friends looked at this technology and said "Dude, that's creepy, I'm not telling you or anyone else where I am all the time."

This is a problem - the geo-nerd in me loved the concept, and my normal friends hated it.

Then, in the spring of 2008, I JailBroke my friend's original iPhone, and checked out a rogue app called Twinkle, a Twitter application with built in GPS / Location support.

Instantly, I saw there was a "Nearby" tab, and I saw dozens of folks around me in San Francisco posting pictures, and Tweeting away.

This JailBroken iPhone App drove me into an Apple-Fanboy frenzy and I was hanging on every single rumor about a then-speculated iPhone 3G with even better GPS support.

Twinkle worked so well, that I dropped Verizon and got an iPhone 3G the first day it was available and installed 2 applications immediately: Loopt and Twinkle.

Since August, I got 1 friend to join me on Loopt, and in that time I've checked the "Nearby" tab in Twinkle several times a day.

I want to attribute the success of Twinkle's Spatial Social Networking success to the simple fact that there was more than one reason to launch the Twinkle app, and really only one reason to launch Loopt.

I was mostly logging into Twinkle to send Twitter updates to my group of followers, but while I was there I always checked out what was being Tweeted around me.

It has been really interesting to watch how the Nearby features of Twinkle are being used by iPhone users (a gigantic user base at this point). One nearby Twinkler in D.C. explained it to a new user as "a chatroom for people you find all around you."

This was a fundamental different concept than what I had been hearing from Loopt and BrightKite, and it is probably why Twinkle has turned in many cases into a creepy hook-up tool as the popularity surged.

So creepy, that I was tricked into clicking on my first NUDE Twinkle user's uploaded picture last week - it was a dude - not cool.

Twinkle is almost too big now, but I think people have a taste for why sharing your location can be cool and have started to accept that there are benefits to sharing your location.

I think many middle-of-the-road technology users will likely still want to be a little less liberal in their location broadcasting than the users are on Twinkle, so features like limiting your location to trusted friends, and multiple tiers of accuracy settings so people don't know EXACTLY where you are but can at least know what city you're in will be well received.

Paul Ramsy was rather miffed by Google's Latitude launch, as he viewed the beta as an innovation killer.

It's been a while since Google brought out anything truly innovative, but they sure have shown themselves willing to copy the services of upstart companies and try to snatch their markets away

However, I think the move is decidedly less evil than Paul perceives it.

Google has shown a clear interest in a broad spectrum of geospatial technologies, and has provided data to hundreds of millions of users that just 4 years ago never would have had access to it.

It only makes sense that many geospatial technologies will be explored by Google and in almost every case be improvised on and enhanced by the company and, even more importantly, the users.

You can't say Google came to the party late, and is trying to snuff out start-ups, they obviously saw some potential for the basic idea when they bought Dodgeball in 2005.....

I an also tell you that I had 5 of the 7 friends I invited agree to share their location with me in the first day of the service's launch.


Probably because it works with many cell phone models and carriers, and works well with my friend's GMail accounts and their iGoogle, which they are using all day long.

I think Twinkle showed that it requires more than a single-purpose app to get people to really utilize spatial social networking, and I think Google has realized this.

Tying the feature into a users regular use of things like search, GMail, and other Google Applications looks like a winning formula to spatially enable a gigantic user base.

I can only hope that Google looks at the FireEagle and BrightKite models, which did an excellent job of making the location something that was abstracted from a single application or platform, and something that can tie into many other social network platforms, Flickr, Facebook, Picasa, Blogger, WordPress, even FireEagle, Loopt, and BrightKite.

I think they will.

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