By Tara Lane, Staff Writer
While most people use Google maps to get directions or look up an address, few realize the many other options available using the Maps feature. One such application is Google Latitude, a more social feature which enables users to track location history and discover the world around them. On Wednesday, Google announced added features to the Latitude location application that will make the tool more powerful than ever. Now, users can not only keep track of their past locations, they can also be alerted to their friends’ current locations if they’re nearby.
This type of application is a growing trend in the world of Web-enabled mobile devices and smartphones. When Latitude was introduced in February, users could only track their own location history. Now, it’s made more interactive, and also is now a direct competitor with established geosocial networking applications.
These services enable friends to connect on yet another level, adding an interesting twist to traveling and even doing everyday errands. An added bonus is the ability to read reviews of places you’re going that have been left by your friends, or discovering nearby locations that may be of interest. It’s not quite Twitter, Facebook, or Yelp. Instead, it combines all three – a perfect mashup of each network’s most popular features.
Nearly every phone is now GPS enabled. In the next few years, the majority of cell phone users will be toting smartphones and data plans than regular cell phones. In September it was reported than in a period of only six months, the iPhone grew in worldwide smartphone market share from 33 percent to 40, with BlackBerry close behind.
While location-based services have only been adopted by a small number of users, the growth of their technologies will most likely signal a growth in user growth as well. In order to get the most of these programs, users must be connected with many other friends. And while millions of people have smartphones, not everyone is looking to participate. Users of these applications are spearheading growth in adoption rates by convincing their friends to join, and also by others who may see an update from a friend on Twitter or Facebook.
Still, Latitude isn’t the first of its kind. The following geosocial networking applications give users a chance to participate with their friends away from the computer – and right in their own backyard.
Loopt – Loopt allows users to share information about where they’ve been, what they did, and how often they visit certain locations. Users can leave reviews about each location, compile a journal of where they’ve been, and easily integrate it with a blog or Web site, as well as Twitter and Facebook. Loopt is available on nearly every smartphone, including the iPhone, some BlackBerry models, and the T-Mobile G1 phone. In its first few months of availability, Loopt gained more than 100,000 users, and it has been growing steadily ever since.
Foursquare – Similar to Loopt, Foursqare encourages people to discover their city, and also allows users to share where they’ve been, but adds a fun twist to the game. When users “check in” to a location, they can see who else has been there, and also read reviews. If they visit a certain location often enough, they become “mayor” of that location. Along the way, users unlock badges and points for going to certain places. People can also leave secret tips known only to other users, such as a certain word to say at a bar for a free drink, or just interesting things to know about each location. Foursquare currently has its own iPhone and Android apps, but users of other phones must use their browser to check in. The main Web site has an entire section showing how Foursquare can be used for businesses, too – a unique way of marketing, especially for small businesses.
Twitter API features – Popular Twitter APIs TweetDeck, Tweetie and UberTwitter allow users to attach a GPS coordinate with each tweet or photo sent out. This serves a few purposes – users can keep track of where they’ve been, and can also see updates of tweets sent from nearby. For people keen on keeping their privacy, these features are opt-in, meaning you must check a box to specify if you want to send your location out to everyone. Though they’re not primarily location-based programs, the function appeals to people who may want an easy way to group Tweets together or follow certain events. Hopefully, Google can also find a way to work in Latitude with Twitter as well, to corner all areas of the market.
Google is still working out some kinks with the new Latitude features, and is welcoming feedback from anyone experiencing problems. Although it will take some time to perfect, social media gurus everywhere agree Latitude is a major breakthrough in the location-based social media services, and the next wave in mobile computing.