Google's Latitude Adds Location-Sharing to Mobile Phones

googl latitude

Google has added location sharing to its suite of products. Google Latitude was launched as a Google Maps for Mobile (Symbian, Blackberry, Android, WinMo; the iPhone and iPod Touch will be coming soon) and as an iGoogle widget. It will allow you to share your location with a set group of friends. You can determine the level of your location-sharing and easily turn it off. It’s a simple but effective tool. This is the beginning of the age of continuous location-sharing and Google is helping to validate the market (as have other tools I’ve written about before). I am really glad that they have released this product.

latitude igoogle

Google’s Latitude is not tied to a social network site (Orkut is out in the cold). Instead it’s focused solely around showing your location on map and it relies on your GMail/GTalk contacts to find and share with people (Note: these contacts are not added automatically, they must be invited). This will make it very easy for Google to explain the value of the feature (share your location with selected friends), but it also means that to add more social-location functionality (pics, events) they’ll have to really build out the Maps product. Is that their desire?

Google is being quite diligent about explaining privacy — a necessary step for any location-sharing service. From their Privacy Settings help page the menu of the Latitude app you can:

Detect your location. (Let the app get and share your location as accurately and often as your client will allow.)

Set your location. (This lets you manually set your location, which means you can lie. If you are going somewhere you don’t want people to know about you can just share the neighborhood. It’s like incognito mode on Chrome)

Hide your location. (This lets you just turn off the sharing functionality altogether)

Sign out of Latitude (The ultimate control, but as long you have your cell phone turned on it can still be tracked. Face it you are being tracked constantly you just have to decide what features make it worth it)

Surprisingly Latitude beats the two companies who should be pioneering this space: Facebook and MySpace. Latitude will not fill the same functionality that I would expect the two lumbering giants of social networking to (eventually) include. If there other features you want add suggest and vote for them.

Google has actually had many of the tools for building Latitude available to third-parties for a while now. At Where 2.0 last year they announced their intention to release Geolocation Gears API. The other tools needed are Google Maps API and the Google Contacts Data API. Anyone could have built Latitude (and many have built services like it, but without the same amount of blogger attention).

Given that the building blocks have been out there for a while is it obvious that Google would build Latitude? Yes and No.

I do not think of Google as a social company. Though many of their products have a social component doing something with other people, being social is not usually the main focus of a product (GChat and GMail are noticeable exceptions). Instead I read feeds by myself and share selected posts. I make a map for myself and share it. I organize my photos and share some via my own web album. Latitude fits into this model: I get my location for myself (for directions or nearby search) and as an afterthought I share it with a select group of people, however because location-sharing is such a social activity I think it will begin to become a major focus of their Maps app (I wonder if I will be able to get access to my friend’s locations via an API or better yet share my Latitude derived location via Fire Eagle).

Of course Google was going to build Latitude! Their goal is to organize the world’s information (and find ways to monetize it). How could they possibly do that effectively if they didn’t find a way for you to update your location continuously? Letting you share your location with your parents and friends is the best way to do that.

I haven’t read all the coverage out there, but you can find additional good articles on ReadWriteWeb and SearchEngineLand.

The video explanation of Google Latitude:

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  • With Google’s access to other information about my location: calendar, emails with location, GMaps Mobile usage – there is a huge potential for them to infer and project my location and recommendations on different trajectories.

    However, Latitude is definitely lacking an API. Without it – it’s just another place for location information to hit a dead end.

    Obviously the real value for Google here is to understand your place and context and provide you with more contextually relevant ads. We’ve already seen GoogleMaps have in-map sponsored placemarks and ads.

  • Agree about the potential for advertising Andrew. It will be interesting to see how this pans out. After my limited use of it, i’m thinking that this is only for real friends, it’s very, very accurate :)

  • I thought there were already applications developed by wireless providers that allow parents to track their children via GPS chip in a handset? So what is so new about this?

  • Let’s not be too glib, please, about the inevitability of being tracked this way.

    Technologically, you can not be tracked if these conditions are met:

    1. You have control over what software runs on your phone and you make sure that it does not transmit location information. You must be able to inspect the code, copy it, modify it, and share the code and your modifications.
    2. The cellular network is designed in such a way that your location, as inferred from triangulation of towers, can not be queried. A system of public inspections of the network helps to verify this.

    A small number of oligarchs conspire to ensure that both of those conditions are false: You can not buy a phone that affords you that control over the software; You are not entitled to public inspections of the cellular network and no assurances of “no location spying” are forthcoming.

    How many years will it be until some parent, or school, or employer is found liable for not tracking the location of a child, student, or employee? How much of the NSA’s data-mining efforts do you suppose already consult mass databases of the “movements of people” already?

    And it’s not as if carrying one of these phones is a realistic option for many people, our having ripped out most of the pay phones in the world and otherwise having built heavy reliance on cell-phone use for trade. The handiness of portable, personal communicators has been monopolized by a few powerful types and leveraged into an immense attack on civil liberties.

    We have lost freedom of association in this country, as things stand, thanks to a collusion between the government and the oligarchs.


  • Thomas: location relative to towers is a foundational feature of the cellular network, it’s what makes your phone ring. So clearly, it’s necessary for your mobile provider to track you, in order to provide you with service. I do think that Brady’s being extremely disingenuous, though: “you are being tracked constantly you just have to decide what features make it worth it”. There’s a world of difference between being tracked by your phone provider, with whom you have a legal, financial and contractual relationship, and being tracked *by Google*, with whom you have squat. Features are irrelevant here.

    The choice that Google Latitude sweeps under the rug is the ability to decide who can read your location history, for what purposes, and what control you are afforded over its storage or precision. I like FireEagle’s approach here much more than Google’s: FE foregrounds the questions of privacy and ownership with all their confusing and messy glory, while Google, in its characteristic tone-deaf wisdom, just sort of hopes they’ll be ignored.

    Also FE tracks longitude, the unsung second component necessary to determine location on a spherical surface.

  • Michal, you write:

    Thomas: location relative to towers is a foundational feature of the cellular network, it’s what makes your phone ring. So clearly, it’s necessary for your mobile provider to track you, in order to provide you with service.

    The automated equipment of a cellular network needs dynamically updated routing. Locally, I gather, it needs the elements of triangulation to figure out which tower talks to which phone at a given time.

    It is not necessary for that information to be made “queriable” other-wise. One can easily imagine a network with strict restrictions on the visibility and storage of that data with the enforcement of those restrictions verified by public inspection.

    So, we essentially agree although I’m going beyond what you are saying to say not only do we want control, but we want deep regulatory enforcement of that control.

    What we’re getting, instead, is just as I said: an attempt by oligarchs and government to leverage the utility of cell-phones to impose a degree of surveillance that makes freedom of association (and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure) all but an impossibility for most people.


  • Brady,

    Is it possible that even if I were to jack up my privacy settings one day, and block EVERYONE from seeing where I was, that my geoinformation may still be being collected by Google?

    It looks cool… I just know that the schizos will be screaming about this one.

    I’m trying to install it now.

  • As much as I respect the cellphone Amish out there, I have played with Latitude and know there are seveal effective ways you can cloak your location or hide your details after you install Google Latitude. Latitude on a used smartphone lets me track my car’s location at 10% of the cost of installing a GPS car kit. If the insurance company is happy with the result, I can carve several hundred euro a year off the cost of my annual premium. That alone is a win for Latitude in my book.

    Good SEO mavens will already see how Google maps (or any detectable geodetic marking) alongside effectively targeted keyword selection will make money for Google through Latitude. A 2009 BMW crawled by a South Tipperary hotel today in search of good coffee, stopping at the four-star place that Google served up as the first result.

    Google has won the mobile social networking game if Latitude catches the eyes of the iPhone cult.

  • I can already track people like this, and people without GPS too – my 4th year thesis.

  • You’re not just sharing your location with your friends. You’re also sharing it with Google. It’s quite clear from their terms and conditions that they can (and probably will) sell that information to anybody who is prepared to pay for it.

  • The OS and Browser compatibility issues might hurt Latitude. But, yes Braddy.. This certainly is Google’s big chance to get out of the Orkut debacle and lets hope it does.

    But, is Latitude giving more than what a general user wants?
    Also, is it confining Latitude by making at a gadget and not an idependent application?

    Would be glad to know your views.

    Sumit Roy

  • Roger

    This looks like a great tool and I can put it to use in my business. However, please watch the British PBS film series, “The Last Enemy”. It foreshadows the future of government issued ID cards where everyone is tracked at anytime and anyplace. The so-called reasons are noble- “homeland security”. This kind of socialistic government control could happen. Then it becomes a sort of, “mark of the beast” where nobody buys or sells without an ID Card. Food for thought!

  • I posted this comment elsewhere but I think its worthy or repeating here:

    It feels like Google playing in the location area, its not a “finished product” as Scoble calls it. To me it looks like they’ve been waiting for other apps to soften up the public to sharing their location and now they’re gently venturing into what can be a very contentious area, as they have no doubt found out from the negative press they’ve received.

    Something that shows me where my friends are and their Google update status is essentially useless, unless its opened up to third party apps – very few of my friends/family/associates actually have a Google account or update their status, if they do they use Facebook or Twitter; a location enabled social network should facilitate socialising and right now not many people actually socialise on Google they do it on a proper social network.

    So what is Latitude? Its a first step: they need users to get used to sharing their location with Google, they need to learn how to process this data effectively and then figure out how to monetize your location.

    I was/am writing a blog post about Location Driven Context including the issues of location and security, where I make the case that the three principles for secure location are: permission, resolution and trust.

    Permission – Ok, they do ask your permission to share your location, great. BUT their murky T&Cs hide what they are going to do with your location data, and I share others’ unease with Google owning all my data.

    Resolution – I need to be able to set the resolution at which I share my location with others. Exact for close friends and family, neighbourhood for friends, city for acquaintances etc. Latitude completely fails at this. (Fire Eagle excels here).

    Trust – Right now its too early to tell if people will trust Google with this. Lots of bad press coverage is not a good start, their secretive approach also completely alienates the developer community.

  • Besides all trust, API and first-mover issues (which are all true) – noone seems to care about the raw material all proximity and locational services are built around: maps.

    On Yahoo’s last year announcement launching OneConnect almost exactly a year ago, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy is quoted saying …

    “There’s a reason why no mobile socialnetworking company has broken out yet. They haven’t found themselves — on a map, that is.”

    How true this is! The maps haven’t changed much since then – it’s still “maps made for cars”, and frankly — still the good ol’ Navteq or Tele Atlas vehicle stuff, some house footprints manually added offshore.

    Would you locate yourself on a bare bones street map or go for something much more sociable?

    Here’s a lab view of what more sociable maps could look like.

  • KTG

    I think you nailed the major points. Smart phones are not overly secure by nature-their ease in regards to connectivity on the go and using an infinite amount of applications makes them this way. I have enough concern checking my stocks on the go, I’m not sure I am comfortable just yet with divulging this sort of information. I check this security site frequently to educate myself on the topic and will be looking for further opinions on this app.

  • Join the Google Latitude community for Indian users in orkut:
    Google Latitude

  • Sean sogoian

    This is the badest ever.

  • Sean Sogoian