Apple's Big Location Chance, Or When Is The iPhone Going To Use That GPS?

Apple’s iPhone is being heralded for all of its location-aware apps like Whrrl and Loopt. Unfortunately location-aware apps are currently crippled. I want a setting to record my location throughout the day. I want third-party apps that I trust to be able to access it. Until then Apple is crippling these apps’ potential and not letting the iPhone live up to this Wired cover.

wired where am i

Right now the iPhone updates my location only when I go to an app that requests it. On my iPhone these include Google Maps, Loopt, Whrrl. WikiMe, and Earthscape (to name a few). For many of these apps this setup works fine; they are geobrowsers. Once the app has my location it lets me know what relevant information they can provide or how to get somewhere. Loopt and Whrrl, though they are part geobrowser, have a very different set of functionality. They want to let me know where my friends are. Right now they can’t. They can only tell me where my friends were the last time they logged in and location is information that degrades quickly.

Apple does not allow third-party apps to run background processes. If they did an app could have a “LocationGrabber” running in the background and it would update that app’s (and probably only that app’s) servers every 15 minutes (or so). The app would also be able to alert me when I wandered near a friend or if there was a Wikipedia article about a nearby statue. This would, of course, kill my battery and slow the system down (especially if I had multiple apps that wanted my location).

Instead of allowing third-party apps to run background processes Apple has promised to provide them the ability to push messages to the client. This is perfect for apps like instant messaging; it can alert me when a friend has pinged me. Or a calendar that can remind me when I have an appointment. However this system will not work for location-dependant apps. How can Loopt or Whrrl accurately let me know that a friend is nearby when it doesn’t know where I am? It only knows where I was. Apple has to check my location periodically and make that information available to trusted apps.

Why do I want this functionality? I’d like to get metrics on my daily path (How long do I spend grocery shopping vs. the gym vs. home?). I’d like to let friends know when I am near (and vice-versa). I’d like to be alerted when I am near a virtual note. In theory I’d like to at least have the option of being alerted with a location-based coupon. I want to learn about what I do, not what I think I do.

Aren’t I afraid that I’ll be tracked? Not really. By using a cellphone my location can already be determined by the government or the carriers or possibly Apple. I have decided that I am OK with sacrificing this privacy for the ability to make a call on the go. Having made this big leap already I am not concerned about the incremental step of sharing my location more broadly. I would expect that my phone and the associated apps would give me full control over my data: what hours I want to be tracked, how I want that shared, the ability to delete my data (basically I expect them to be as respectful as Fire Eagle).

The iPhone has huge mind-share with location-aware apps. I hope Apple uncripples them. Nokia isn’t going to pass up this advantage and Android certainly isn’t going to come out of the gates making the same mistake.

Image courtesy: jurvetson

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