Location-based services like Latitude are great for keeping tabs on friends and could even come in handy in other situations

New Mobile-Device Feature Lets Users Share Their Every Move With Each Other by Katherine Boehret

For the past week, I’ve been stalking my sister, my boyfriend, and my boss. They’ve also been stalking me, and we still like one another.

All four of us have been using an application that, once downloaded onto a mobile device, uses location-based technology to track its users’ movements. The app then displays the user’s location on a map for friends to see, so they can know where the person is at all times.

We used Google Latitude, a new feature in the search giant’s Google Maps mobile application as of today. People can get this if they upgrade their current version of Google Maps or install Maps for the first time. It works on Google’s G1, most color BlackBerrys, most Windows Mobile devices and some other smartphones. Google says it will soon work on the iPhone, iPod touch and Sony Ericsson phones.

Google (GOOG) is arriving late to the party where location-based apps like Loopt (Loopt.com) from Loopt Inc. and Where (where.com) from uLocate Communications are already following people on a variety of mobile devices ranging from basic cellphones to iPhones. These apps rely on GPS satellites, Wi-Fi or cellular towers to locate you and your friends, and then use this data to encourage people to find nearby attractions, local information or social networks.

Latitude is an opt-in-only feature, meaning no one can see your location — or vice versa — without permission. It uses either GPS satellites or cell-tower and Wi-Fi location technology depending on your mobile device’s specifications and what’s most available in certain spots. My trusted testers and I used Google Latitude on three different kinds of BlackBerrys: the Pearl 8130, Curve 8320 and two Curve 8900s. Of these, only the 8900s made use of GPS.

Google Latitude

Latitude, a feature in Google Maps, shares someone’s location, status, and photo with friends. Location data can update every several minutes when a user is moving.

Along with their locations, friends can share other information on Latitude by updating a status line or changing their picture, which appears as a tiny representative icon on a map. Changes to one’s status or picture will be reflected in Google Talk, Google’s instant-messaging tool, but this doesn’t integrate with other status-related social-networking programs like Facebook or Twitter, and thus may saddle people with another status entry to update.

It’s easy to find fault in Latitude since it often spots people inaccurately, including showing my sister in Boston’s Charles River, rather than in a neighborhood along the river. It’s worth noting that tracking technology in general, including GPS, can be inaccurate. But even with these inaccuracies, my friends and I liked finding one another on our respective maps and used this geographic information to send location-specific messages to each other: I joked with my boyfriend about not leaving his house on time for a dinner and commended my sister on getting up early for church on Sunday.

Usability issues aside, location-based services like Latitude can be just plain creepy, especially when a Big Brother-like Google is tracking your whereabouts. So Google incorporated easy-to-change privacy settings so that locations can be automatically detected, manually entered or completely hidden from other people. Or people can sign out of Latitude altogether.

Likewise, users can adjust the level of geographic information they’re willing to share with each person. For example, I might want to share with my boyfriend my best available location information, like a specific spot on a street, and share only city-level location information with my boss.

The city-level information would be helpful for my parents, who often wish they had a better idea of when I’m traveling for work and where I’ll be. But my parents aren’t likely to download Google Latitude onto their mobile devices anytime soon. For them, a special Latitude widget in iGoogle — Google’s personalized homepage feature on a PC — might be best. This widget is also useful for people who may have Latitude on a mobile device but are sitting at their desks and want to see where their friends are.

As expected, Latitude worked differently between me and the people who live in the same area, compared with how it worked between me and people who live hundreds of miles away, like my sister in Boston. For example, my boyfriend and I are more likely to use our respective locations to plan where we’ll meet for dinner, while my sister’s current location is just fun to see. Still, my sister and I know one another’s neighborhoods well enough to have an idea of where the other was, and we felt a little more plugged in with each other’s lives when we saw one another on our maps.

People who live in urban settings will likely use Latitude differently than those who live in the suburbs. One of my testers noted that it could be fun using Latitude to see where friends are out in a city on any given night.

But because Latitude sometimes pegs people’s locations as a lot farther away than they are — one test spotted a friend 1.5 miles away from his real location — this might be tough data to go on.

After using Latitude for a while, I grew to recognize familiar location mistakes like home or work and knew where my friends actually were. But it’s unfortunate that locations aren’t more accurately marked.

Latitude returned the most precise location results when determining where the two GPS-using BlackBerry Curve 8900s were at any given time, though these spots still weren’t perfect. If a mobile device doesn’t have GPS or if GPS simply isn’t available in the area, cellular towers and Wi-Fi will help a determine location. These alternate methods use less battery than GPS, so they will work instead of GPS when Google Maps isn’t running in the foreground of a device.

Latitude users can opt to allow their location to automatically update every several minutes while they’re moving. A Friends List that appears on the map lists people in order of who is moving starting with who moved most recently. Users can send text messages or call friends directly from this list, or find nearby spots like bars or movie theaters by typing into a search box; restaurant information includes ratings and reviews. Directions to and from friends’ locations are also available, and you can plan your route via car, mass transit or walking.

Location-based services like Latitude are great for keeping tabs on friends and could even come in handy in other situations — such as when parents want to know where their kids are or when elderly relatives want to let someone always know their whereabouts. But I wouldn’t want to depend on them in an emergency.

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