Geolocation: Cool or Creepy?

Location aware services and apps are white hot right now.

Cases in point, two new iPhone apps: Google Earth and Brightkite.

I can’t seem to find any use for Google Earth beyond the obvious eye-candy, cool factor. This has always been my complaint with Google Earth. It’s nice to look at, but not very useful.

The iPhone app is only slightly more useful than its sibling because it knows where you are and can show you images and topography nearby automagically. It also layers some useful information, like restaurants over the maps, and you can turn on a Wikipedia integration.

Beyond the satellite images and topography, not that revolutionary. It’s also a bit slow and crashed half the time.

The Brightkite app is a lot more useful, if you’re into geo-awareness, more useful than their web app. It does a nice job of locating you and telling you who and what is nearby. All useful, if you’re into that.

The problem of checking in still makes services like Brightkite and Shizzow a chore for me. I don’t have attention span to remember to check in everywhere I go, making them pretty well useless. Even now that the networks of people using these services include more of my friends, I still have to remember to update.

Plus, most location-aware services don’t fully implement Fire Eagle, which bugs me, e.g. Brightkite sends updates to Fire Eagle, but it doesn’t receive them from Fire Eagle. I want to use Fire Eagle as my location broker, but I can only do that if the apps I want to use implement both sides of the API. This is where the concept falls apart.

Matt’s post about Mozilla’s Geode add-on and the upcoming geolocation features of Firefox 3.1 got me excited about the prospect that the browser could determine and store my location, allowing me to update Fire Eagle or other location-aware sites straight from Firefox.

Sounds cool, again if you’re into that sort of thing, but there’s an interesting catch. It won’t be deployed to Linux machines, not via the Geode add-on, nor in the Firefox 3.1. Why? The geo-features use proprietary software from Skyhook, not very Open Source friendly. This opens a different can of worms about Firefox and its future direction, but for now, it just means I can’t use my Ubuntu box for testing.

So, I jumped straight to the 3.1 beta release of Firefox on my Mac to check out this and other new features. Turns out the geo-features are pretty early beta, and you have to tell Geode explicitly where you are using a virtual GPS app of some kind. This was news to me.

From Matt’s post:

Geode . . . uses Loki’s location data to bring that info into Firefox. They use the wifi access point MAC addresses within range of you to calculate your location vs. the triangulation / gpi hybrid most cell providers use.

Maybe it’s user-error or a setting on my side, but Firefox 3.1 has no idea where I am, until I tell it with the virtual GPS app. I hope it’s not a long-term solution because then I have the same issue of having to remember to check in places.

Anyway, lots of people cite the creepy factor as their reason for skipping location-aware features. One thing that all the services I’ve used have implemented is the ability to report at exact, nearby/neighborhood and zip code or city level.

Regardless of what you’re reporting, the GPS on your phone or Geode on your browser theoretically still has a pretty good idea of where you are, even if it’s not telling.

For me, this is a lot like Web 2.0. If you want to play and get the benefits, you have to give up some level of privacy. So, if you want a snazzy iPhone, G1 or the Blackberry equivalent, you better be comfortable with the phone knowing where you are.

I’m waiting for the app that can do automagic updates of my location without requiring a checkin. I know, sounds like a DOC ankle bracelet. Maybe this is how the end of privacy comes, with shiny, cool features, instead of police muscle.

Anyway, what do you think of location-aware services? Cool or creepy? Maybe both?




  1. I agree. The power of Google Earth potentially rests with the integration of various location aware, information-rich services. Why not add the ability to tie events, pictures, videos, reviews, etc to the Google Earth iPhone application? That'd make it far more useful than what it is now.

  2. I suppose the Wikipedia integration adds a bit of this, but you're right, it should go farther. I'm still waiting for an integration with Maps for directions.

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