With Latitude, Google Fires Another Shot at Mobile Operators

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Earlier today, Google (s goog) unveiled Latitude, a nifty little application for your smartphone (as long as it’s not an iPhone) that lets your friends locate you, and you them, on a map. It reminds me of that great Boost Mobile commercial, the one with the tagline, Where you at?! As the Google Mobile blog explains:

Latitude is a new feature of Google Maps for mobile, as well as an iGoogle gadget, that allows you to share your location with your friends and to see their approximate locations, if they choose to share them with you. You can use your Google account to sign in and easily invite friends to Latitude from your existing list of contacts or by entering their email addresses. Google Talk is integrated with Latitude, so you and your friends can update your status messages and profile photos on the go and see what everyone is up to. You can also call, SMS, IM, or email each other within the app.

Google Latitude vs Dodgeball Photo Courtesy of Flickr

In fact, Latitude is the result of a much bigger battle between Google and the mobile operators, of which location-based services are but one small part.

As I have said so many times in the past, LBS is the next big pot of gold. Just this week, I wrote: “My big belief is that as we transition to an increasingly mobile world, the location beacon takes the role of the TCP, and most mobile services (and applications) find their context from this location beacon.” Panelists at our Mobilize conference last year were of the opinion that location is about adding relevancy to applications already being used. I’d put it a bit more bluntly: In the future, mobile applications without context provided by location-based services will be like pizza without cheese.

We’ve already seen the rapid commoditization of the Global Position System (GPS) chips and hardware. Many of the GPS chipset vendors, such as Broadcom (s brcm), Qualcomm (s qcom), SiRF and CSR, have licensed Skyhook Wireless’ Wi-Fi positioning information, which adds depth to location-related information. In addition, there are many aggregators — Wavemarket, Loc-Aid and uLocate, for example — that sell network-centric location data as well.

And in keeping with my theme from last night, I’d like to point out that there are already products on the market that do what Latitude promises. DodgeBall, a company Google itself bought, was doing something similar a few years ago. (Thanks Matt, for that link.) Of course Latitude could prove to be bad news for location startup Loopt. As one of our readers wrote, “Loopt has not cracked the code yet in terms of getting enough customers or getting PAID for the customers they do have.”

Actually, Latitude is most similar to a friend locator offering from Useful Networks called Sniff, which is available on Sprint (s s). In order to be effective on a larger scale, Sniff would have to do cross-carrier location information aggregation. They plan to announce more deals and trials at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona later this month.

In the meantime, with Latitude Google is moving to commoditize both the map information and the location beacon. Google is using triangulation data from cellular networks, and Wi-Fi positioning along with GPS data for its Latitude offering. It is only a matter of time before this location information is made available to other developers for free, especially Android app developers. After all, Google needs apps for its Android platform, and more importantly it needs developers to think differently. 

By doing so, it’s going after a potentially lucrative revenue stream for the carriers. As Stacey had noted, “Developers are charged each time their program asks a server for the GPS coordinates of the mobile device, making location-based services a potentially pricey feature.”

North American carriers in particular are at risk here. They need a collective LBS aggregation strategy, and fast, according to Chetan Sharma, a mobile industry expert, which is where offerings from Qualcomm can help. But will those be enough? I don’t think so.

50 Comments

Ryan Hardin

I commented earlier that “Microsoft’s best move at this point would be to purchase Loopt.”

Let me continue that with this:

Loopt’s best move at this point would be to pursue Microsoft.

If I were the VCs at Sequoia Capital and New Enterprise Associates, I would be licking my chops right now. What Google has done with Google Latitude is create an enormous amount of “buy us out” value for Loopt.

But why Microsoft?

1) Well, Microsoft has the most money. For this reason, I wouldn’t pursue Google for a buy out.
2) Microsoft wants to gain a solid footprint on search. And their eyes are set on taking that from Google.
3) Microsoft has over a ba-gillion hotmail users, and this would create the largest social network ever. Compare the number of hotmail users and the number of mobile users, and don’t just focus on users in the U.S. This is true for the most part: Microsoft Windows user = Hotmail/Live user.
4) Heck, Loopt is even based off of Microsoft’s ASP.NET and SQL Server technology, and also (the last time I checked), that map in the background is a Live Maps integration.
5) Loopt doesn’t have a version for Windows Mobile, but they do for practically every other phone. Instead of writing an app for Windows Mobile, let Microsoft’s next version of Live Search for Mobile be compatible with the Loopt service.
6) Instead of Microsoft writing an app for the Blackberry, iPhone, Android, and other platforms where Loopt already works, just buy them out and integrate.
7) Every day that passes, Loopt loses value as more users switch to the integrated Google Latitude Maps for Mobile on both Android and the iPhone.

It is for this reason, they should pursue a buyer, and now. Everything here sounds like everything that the VCs planned for; they just need to see it.

Because this space is based on the world of free, value is calculated by users. With iPhones selling like hot cakes, and with Blackberrys and Androids gaining momentum while Windows Mobile users are still taking out their stylus (?), Microsoft should get back into the software business on the computers of the future, and the best way to get back into the software game at this point is to ACQUIRE. And what is the most powerful free app for users with the best ad-revenue potential? The social compass.
It’s a match made in heaven.

Welcome to the 1980s all over again. Microsoft having the most wanted app on an Apple OS.

If I were Loopt, I would pull out my iPhone/Android phone and be calling big daddy Microsoft right now.

@Shari: I want commission for spotting this. We should talk because what we are doing with MapKick could make you guys a lot of money…

Let the LBS space race finally begin!

RemyA

@ronald I believe that OmniFocus (both on the MAc and the iPhone) is nearly there with regards to what you require. Omnifocus has this concept of “context” that you associate with each task. And in the iPhone version, you can associate a context with a location, and then view your todo-list with regards to whenre you are presently (sorted by distance to tje location context).

ronald

Is LbS a platform or an application?

Let’s take a look at a different example:
My wife sends me a task to pick something up on the way. Since it’s on my way home. This task includes a location (store) and what and when day to pick it up.
Now Murphy’s law dictates that when I had planned to do that, all hell brakes loose and I will be late and everything I should have done hours ago is wiped of my memory.
Now wouldn’t it be nice if my phone still could remind me if I get in the proximity of the store I should have been hours ago ?
What would we need for this to happen? A map, best with bookmark locations, associate location with things to do. Calendar info. A protocol to exchange all this effective. Desktop, phone, server applications to make this information available from any point and send to any point.
What does the provider get, the best intend info there is. Better then search. Makes me wonder how smart Googley’s really are.
In other words LbS should be a platform.

Ryan Hardin

Microsoft’s best move at this point would be to purchase Loopt. Loopt doesn’t have a Windows Mobile version, and it would probably be in their best interest not to create a WM version — strictly for business reasons.

Why?
1) Because Microsoft’s Live Search will be the next mobile mapping app that will allow you to track your friends.

2) Microsoft desperately wants to get into this space.

This obviously presents an opportunity for MSFT to buy Loopt.

At this point, inter-compatibility between Loopt and Live Search would happen, and all those Windows Mobile phone users can tap into the world of social, geo-twittering, with search and soon to come geo-advertising.

Other reasons:
– There are a TON more hotmail users than gmail users out there.
– Windows Mobile 6.5 is coming out (and 7 to soon follow) , and Live Search will be built in.
– Loopt has a whole bunch of users, as Shari said here, and most of them are iPhone users. (Thanks to the presentation given at the iPhone developer/app store launch.)
– Loopt has versions for all other phones, so MSFT could instantly gain users on these platforms

Loopt should worry about their continued presence at this point, because GMaps is a preloaded app on the iPhone. So once Google updates their iPhone version, we now have two competing apps that do the same thing on the iPhone.

Also, Loopt also works on Android, so we already do have two competing apps that have this capability on the same platform.

I’m sure Android’s GMap app will weed out Loopt simply because it is Google’s OS, and GMaps comes preloaded, and in the same manner, Loopt will be weeded out of the iPhone. (It’s also preloaded.)

But Loopt does have this in their favor: users.
People won’t abandon Loopt initially because all their friends would have to do it at the same time.

For this reason, Loopt just gained a lot of cash value buy the guys with cash. And for this reason, the obvious choice is someone with a lot of cash who wants to get into this space: Microsoft.

If Microsoft doesn’t take the opportunity, then game over Microsoft for ever getting a stronghold into this space.

Right now, Loopt has the users. Google has the advertisers. Both have a similar app.

Now if Google were to buy Loopt and allow compatiblity between the network of users, then all major phones would be covered.

So who will see the opportunity and purchase Loopt first? Microsoft or Google?

Patrick is Very Evolved

I’ve failed to hear any convincing arguments how the benefits to the user are greater than the downsides. Sure it’s great for companies or your friends to track you – but how does this location broadcasting greatly benefit you while you’re transmitting out and about?

Patrick

jonathan

my thoughts regarding LBS are fairly complicated, and when google introduces something like this, there are so many things to bring up, i hardly know what to mention. just briefly a few things i would point out:

-LBSs seem to be very mobile-centric. while seems very obvious, i cant help but feel that its too limiting/exclusive since smartphone users dont exactly constitute a large portion of the potential market

-as a few other articles have pointed out, our friends arent really on google, theyre on facebook, myspace, maybe twitter. Om pointed out that soon location data will become publicly available for developers, and that data needs to be combined with our real friends lists to really be useful. when it comes to LBSs, its the location data itself thats the most important (as opposed to users/community, which was the case for social networks). therefore, there needs to (eventually) be a standard format for sharing location so the data can be easily piped around and used.

-there needs to be a cultural change to overcome the entire privacy concern. the way i see it: 5 years ago if you told people we would broadcast their life for everyone to see over the webs, theyd think youre crazy, but thats exactly what twitter, friendfeed, and facebook do (when newsfeed/minifeed first came out, users hated it, but now…)

-my feelings toward latitude are mixed. on one hand it feels like an entry into a market that is relatively young and uncrowded (which seems rare for google to do). on the other hand it feels like a very half baked product thats only available to a limited number of users who have smartphones and very few practical applications. is google rushing this?

-interface design for LBSs are very difficult. everyone seems to emphasize the map, but thats very difficult to use pragmatically. its cumbersome, takes time to load, doesnt fit on a small screen. we’re dealing with a new type of data and a medium never dealt with before. there needs to be some innovation beyond just a map or just text or a combination of the two. on the same point, i feel often that inaccurate GPS/wi-fi/celltower triangulation doesnt do a lot of people that much good. for most of our day to day lives, we go about routines and dont travel that much. semantically a pair of coordinates or an address doesnt do us much good, but a zoomed out map doesnt do us that much good either (i know friendx is in cityx but thats not what i needed to know).

anyways, i rambled a ton. couldve written more. hopefully not everyone just glosses over it…

al_tekone

yes, google has numerous mobile applications as well as a presence on all mobile platforms. What they don’t have is proper leadership to guide them to financial stability. With a down economy and multiple “platforms” being developed, flaws in the systems are causing too much down time and not enough productivity for the Red, Yellow, green and blue logo. the ability to build and “shoddily” post applications, means nothing if the end user can not experience what the coder originally created. I will attempt to utilize latitude, though low memory and bugs will further disrupt my utopian experience. Everyone will peak somewhere…google did, be on the look for some more innovation from the Yahoo camp. or is investing in altavista a solution?

Todd

@ loopt shari

Why should I pay to use loopt when Google Latitude is free?

Subhankar Ray

As someone who took part in the development LBS around 1999, I have seen the excitements before, only to be ruined by privacy concerns. Hope this will be different this time.

loopt shari

Om,
That great Boost commercial was created for the Boost Loopt launch back in 2006. Here’s the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew94okDkCwU

Also, I can’t access the Loopt reader comment that you reference in your post, but just wanted to make sure you and your readers were aware that Loopt is indeed interoperable across all major US carriers and available on over 100 different mobile devices including the iPhone, BlackBerry and G1. And our community of users is over 1 million strong and growing.

There are lot of exciting players in this space right now which is great for mass market adoption and awareness of LBS. At Loopt, we remain committed and focused on helping people discover and navigate the world around them.

http://www.looptblog.com

ImprintVision

I agree. Google is the futures of human beings, Look, Google, Have google app to connect websites, google has advertising, google has google earth, google also has mobile. Good Luck, cheers for google

Dave

I agree, the battle is on. I have heard that Google released Latitude earlier as planned to counter Vodafone’s Pocket Life (launched at http://www.pocketlife.com in December 2008). Pocket Life seems to be way ahead, but of course Google might catch up soon…

ronald

Coming back to the big idea todo list. My todo list is a list of lists which is location and time dependent, could someone with the big brains just write it for me … running on the iPhone with approximate location please.

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