Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Location-Aware: The Future of Social Networking

Well, now that NPR has done a story on location-aware cell phone services, the urban-dwelling, latte-sipping, 30-something professionals will be talking about it, so I'd better throw my two cents into the mix. (Disclaimer: I am a total NPR junkie, so don't take offence to my characterization of NPR listeners.)


For the non-latte-sipping crowd, when I say "location aware," I'm simply talking about using GPS (Global Positioning System) data in different applications, usually on a cell phone. For the most part, this is currently limited to simply reporting your location and drawing a map.

My experiments with location-aware social networking.

About three years ago, when location-enabled cell phones started to become available in the United States, I played around with Mologogo, a very bare-bones application which took my cell phone's GPS position and published it to the web. Unfortunately, it worked only on a limited number of Nextel and Boost Mobile (Nextel's pre-paid service) phones, so I had to buy a Boost Mobile prepaid phone for this one application. The application did nothing more than report my location to a website. Unfortunately, Mologogo was very buggy and, while it provided an interface to integrate with my own applications, I wanted something more out-of-the-box.

Things have improved (but only marginally) since then and I've moved on to Ipoki, which reports my location to a website and my Facebook profile, without much trouble on my part. Ipoki also has the advantage of running on my Sprint phone, so I don't have to carry a THIRD cell phone around. The current application crashes frequently, which is annoying, but somewhat tolerable. If you would like to follow me, feel free: http://www.ipoki.com/maps/aaronhurd. I'll make no guarantees about keeping Ipoki on.

My Complaints.

Unfortunately, both of these applications suck battery life. I have no idea what my current phone (HTC Touch Pro, Sprint) will do, but it's been my experience that most GPS applications require a persistent connection to the Internet, which drains a phone battery in about two hours. An application running on a mobile phone is of limited utility if it must be tethered to the power grid.

Other than battery life, here are my top feature requests:
  • Integration with Social Networks AND Privacy Settings - I do not want to share my location with just anyone and I want to be able to integrate with Facebook.
  • Updates to Twitter, Facebook, etc., based on location. - If I am at Stomping Grounds in Ames, I want my Facebook status to read, "Aaron is at Stomping Grounds in Ames." Even cooler would be time-based updates, so if I'm at John Deere between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., my status can read, "Aaron can't sleep, so he's gone to work early."
  • Automatic geo-tagging of social media content. - If I post a picture to Facebook from my cell phone, attach my location to it.
Finally, the United States mobile phone carriers are notorious for locking the features on their phones, preventing cool applications like Ipoki and Mologogo from accessing the GPS applications. (Verizon is especially notorious for this.) They claim that it's so that they can have network stability, but most of the rest of the world allows users to use unlocked equipment with few problems . . .

The Future.

As social networking becomes more location-aware, we will certainly see some interesting things happening in the future. Here's an abbreviated list of my predictions:
  • Location data will be aggregated to provide general information, such as traffic reports (UC Berkeley is already experimenting with this).
  • Advertising, advertising, advertising. Expect the US cell phone carriers to try to get location-based advertising on your phone any way they can. When you walk by Starbucks, they'll offer you a free ringtone with your latte.
  • It will become common practice for parents track their children by installing software on their cell phones. (All major US cell phone carriers are currently selling this service.) This will quickly become obsolete as children learn how to disable these services. Cheating spouses, however, had better beware.
  • Location data will be used to improve quality of service: Airports, for example, could use this data to map passenger paths through terminals, marry this data to flight schedules and use this to figure out which airplane should park where.
  • People will be automatically informed when their friends are in the area, so that they can meet up in person. This will be a rare case of technology fostering real social interaction.
Well, that's my Tuesday @ 5:00 a.m. brain-dump on location-aware services. What are your predictions? Do you use location-aware services on your mobile phone? I'm looking to experiment with some other applications, so if you have any suggestions of apps I should look at, go ahead and send them my way.


Mark said...

Right now you're filling college students with false hope at the career fair but Ipoki tells me you're on I-35 ten miles south of Ames. Consumer GPS technology is much better than that; maybe it's just the Sprint phone that sucks.

Liz said...

I read a great article recently in which a guy tried out every single location-aware application he could find. Some of them already do what you predict, but not elegantly. Check it out: