Loopt makes for a pretty impressive demonstration, which is why the location-based social-networking service was one of only a few iPhone applications that got stage time during Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s keynote address at this summer’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. As a giant screen displayed a map dotted with friends in the user’s vicinity, the application’s use became clear: it’s a brand-new way to get in touch with people.
While Loopt isn’t available in Canada yet—international expansion is planned, but Loopt Inc. wasn’t willing to share any dates—other on-line location-based services are already operating north of the border, most notably Denver-based No Sleep Media’s Brightkite (brightkite.com/ ) and Yahoo’s Fire Eagle (fireeagle.yahoo.net/ ). Like Loopt, these services let users share their current location with friends and strangers.
For users, logging in to Brightkite or Loopt is supposed to open up a whole new world of social interaction. After signing in at a coffee shop, you can see if there are other users in the same shop, in the neighbourhood, or in the city. If friends are nearby, you can send them a message to arrange to meet up.
However, Brightkite isn’t quite as simple to use as Loopt. Rather than relying on the assisted–GPS technology in the iPhone and some other mobile phones, as Loopt does, Brightkite requires users to text, e-mail, or post on-line their street address or location in order for the site to log their position. (Assisted GPS uses satellites, Wi-Fi hot spots, and cellular towers to determine the position of a device.) But the process isn’t seamless and, after a few weeks of using the service, may still not come naturally to you.
Vancouver realtor and sporadic Brightkite user Matthew Collinge has the same beef with the service. “It’s not in front of my face often enough,” he said.
Collinge noted that it had been a few weeks since he last used Brightkite. Part of the reason for that, he explained, is the effort required to keep the service updated.
“They like you to first say you’re at an address, then send another message and say you’re at Waves, and then another message that says what you’re doing, and then, if you want to send a picture, it’s another message,” he said. “So by the time you’ve created anything comprehensive or interesting on Brightkite, you’ve sent four messages and it’s probably taken five minutes.”
The realtor is constantly trying out different technologies and services that could help him in his business. He uses his Web site (www.604homes.com/ ) and the microblogging service Twitter to keep in touch with his clients. For him, Brightkite currently lacks the user base to be a useful business application.
While none of these services has caught on the way popular social-networking sites Facebook and MySpace have, it’s clear that they’re here to stay. Yahoo’s development of Fire Eagle—which can be used to share your location with Brightkite, the microblogging site Pownce ( www.pownce.com/ ), and other applications—and Google’s acquisition of Dodgeball ( www.dodgeball.com/ ) and Jaiku ( www.jaiku.com/ ) show that both Internet giants are betting such services will eventually become profitable advertising platforms.
Indeed, they are an advertiser’s dream—the dream being that, when users flip open their mobile phones to see if friends are close, they’ll also see ads for nearby businesses.
Richard Smith, a professor of communication at SFU, is another lapsed Brightkite user. “Because I study this stuff, I try them out, but I don’t really live the lifestyle that they’re targeted at,” Smith explained. “I’m not a young single person living in the city.”
While Loopt’s ease of use and compatibility with the iPhone’s assisted–GPS may address some of the reasons that location-based social-networking services have yet to catch on, Smith warns that applications that track your position aren’t necessarily a good thing.
“There’s an ick factor to some of these things,” he said. “You have to tread a fine line between being useful and being icky. Ironically, people want to share their location. Get on the SeaBus and just stand there and listen, and people will pick up their phones and make a call and say, ”˜Hey, I’m on the SeaBus.’ Where you are is really important to people, but they [users] want to control that.”