Last month Google killed four of their mobile services (Jaiku, Notes, Dodgeball and the iPhone and Android specific variants of iGoogle) and I was starting to have doubts about the search and advertising giant’s commitment to mobile. I shouldn’t have doubted, on Monday Google rolled out Tasks for Mobile, and today launched a brand new service, Google Latitude.
Latitude adds location tracking to the Google Maps mobile application and to iGoogle on the desktop. You can track yourself and anyone with a Google account who has either installed the latest 3.0 version of mobile Maps or a new iGoogle Latitude gadget. The way it works is that when you start Maps you are prompted if you want to join Latitude and “See your friends on the map”. If you accept you are asked for your Google account credentials and then shown a tag list of your Gmail contacts . Check off the contacts you want to share location info with and Google sends each one an email inviting them to join Latitude and share their location with you. If they accept, you can see them on the map and they can see you. Location sharing in Latitude is strictly between friends by mutual consent, it’s not possible to share your location publicly. Latitude has the ability to continue sharing your location in the background. When you close the app you are prompted whether to allow this or not. If you decide to allow background sharing I suggest you go into Map’s Settings menu and deselect “Use GPS” which will force Maps and Latitude to use cell IDs to locate you which should help battery life considerably.
None of this is really new, in fact it’s very similar to what Mologogo, Socialight and Loopt have been doing for a couple of years. None of these services have really caught on in a big way. However, I think Latitude will be huge. Previous friend tracking apps have had a hard time growing because there is a lot of friction to the network building process. First you have to know about the service and install the mobile app, then you have convince your friends to do the same, and then everyone needs to run the app all the time. It’s hard to create much of a network that way. With Google the network is already there in Gmail which has around 100 million users. Google’s mobile Maps application is surely one of the most popular of installable apps as well. Virtually everyone knows someone with a Gmail account. The network is huge and Latitude is highly viral in that it offers to invite everyone in your contact list whether they have a Google account or not.
Sharing your location is a little scary, Latitude attempts to reduce the fear by an emphasis on security which is quite fine grained in the service. First there is the double opt-in, both parties must agree to simultaneously share their location, users can chose to share only their city rather than an exact location or even manually enter a location which could, of course, be anywhere including places where they aren’t
I’m betting that Google has big plans for Latitude particularly in the social networking area. The benefits to Google of knowing the users location are pretty obvious when it comes to ad targeting so they have a lot of motivation to make this succeed. The beginnings of a social network are already visible in Latitute. You can set your status and upload a photo from within Maps. Your friend’s photos and status appear on the map and their Google profiles are a click away. Latitude also gives you options to connect with nearby friends using Gmail, Google Talk or SMS. I can see further possibilities for social networking in the form of integration with Google’s FriendConnect and OpenSocial and maybe even Google’s neglected stepchild of a social network, Orkut.
Latitude is available now for color BlackBerry devices, Windows Mobile 5.0 and above and most Symbian S60 devices by visiting google.com/latitude with our mobile browser. Install the Latitude iGoogle gadget by visiting the same URL on your PC. Latitude is rumored to be part of the 1.1 RC33 update for Android that could be rolled out as soon as tomorrow. Google also promises support soon for the iPhone and iPod Touch and “many” Sony Ericsson phones.