Google just launched a really interesting service called Latitude. At first I thought it is a new service entirely but I soon realised this is an improvement to Google Maps for mobile devices which will give privacy advocates many sleepless nights. So what is Google Latitude? It is a mobile product that integrates with Google Maps and your contacts list in your Gmail account. The combination is a service that shows you where your friends are and what they are doing. Latitude also gives you the ability to contact your friends through sms and IM or by phone.
There are a number of safeguards built into the service to protect both your privacy and your friends’ privacy. For starters it is an opt-in service so you have to take a positive step to activate the service and have control over whether you disclose your location or not. Although you can add your friends from your contacts list (the one option is to add your whole contacts list in one go so be prepared!), it appears they have to approve your request to add them.
Another feature of the service is status updates … this is all probably beginning to sound familiar to users of another service which was developed by some of Latitude’s developers: Jaiku! Jyri Engeström, one of Jaiku’s founders, was involved in Latitude’s developments and told me this morning that some of his former Jaiku development team were involved in Latitude’s development. This answers a question I have had about what the Jaiku team have been doing since Google acquired Jaiku a while ago. I was really disappointed to see that Jaiku wasn’t being as actively maintained and that it wasn’t integrated into Android but I can see what Google was up to. Smart even if it did take Google a while to get this going.
The screenshots are based on an Android device/iPhone so I don’t know what the contacts list within the new Google Maps looks like. I also haven’t added any friends yet either. This is a product you should only really use with people you know because if your device is GPS enabled, your friends can see precisely where you are.
Latitude also integrates into a Google Gadget which you can add to iGoogle and I wouldn’t be surprised to see integration with Google Maps (online) and even Google Earth at some point. This service becomes really powerful when combined with other map data like restaurants and other social spots. This is what location-based service advocates have been talking about for some time now. It also makes it even more important to have better map data in countries like South Africa if we are going to enjoy the full benefits of this service.
Some of you are probably thinking that this isn’t new. The Grid already some some of this functionality, as do a couple other services around the Web like Fire Eagle. The service that probably comes closest to Latitude is Nokia’s Friend View but that is obviously limited to certain Nokia devices (Latitude works with a broader range of devices).
As with anything Google, it is still significant when Google gets involved in a space but it remains to be seen which service will prove most successful. Given the prevalence of Google Maps on iPhones, Android devices and a large number of other mobile devices, it doesn’t take a lot to introduce all these users to Latitude. It takes an upgrade to a service they already use and trust. GPS integration is going to make a big difference here.
Let me know what you think about the service?