Latitude is now available in-browser on the iPhone and many iPhone owners will no doubt give it a try. We'd recommend you check it out and then promptly download the app for Brightkite, a startup in the same sector. Brightkite is so full featured it makes Latitude look like a frustrating joke.Google announced today that its location based social network
Much has been written already today about Apple's insistence that Latitude be accessed through the browser, instead of as a downloaded app. That's hardly the only thing wrong with it. So far, it's just plain terrible. Here's why.
The short version of this list of complaints is this: Google Latitude is just a dumb list of your friends and their physical locations. Right now there's nothing more to it. Brightkite, on the other hand, makes location-based social networking seem worth doing because it's got far more useful features.
- No status messages
- There are no places in Latitude
- No granular control over location exposure
- Refreshing my location is not intuitive
- No web interface or much of anything, it's locked up in a widget
- You can't sort contacts by proximity
There's no way to post any additional information to Latitude along with your location. It's just your location, nothing more. That means no context. You can see where your friends are but there's no way to know what they are doing!
Brightkite, on the other hand, lets you post text messages or photos with your location updates. A stream of location updates from your friends or other people becomes meaningful, readable.
In Brightkite, people check in from places - named public businesses or other locations like stores, parks, etc. With just a few clicks Brightkite can guess what place you're at, and not just places other Brightkite users have identified. You can also look at the history of check-ins and comments from other users at that location.
In Latitude every place is just another dumb spot on a map, with no history or context.
In Latitude you're either public or private, down to the half-block or zoomed out to say what city you're in. Luckily the service got my house's location wrong by 5 blocks, but other users say it's quite precise. Why can't I expose my location with more granular control? Why can't I show where I am with a half mile, for example?
You can change the crude settings on a friend-by-friend basis ("only show this person what city I am in") but it's a far cry from the much more privacy-conscious set up at Brightkite. When you launch the app you're greeted with a very reassuring tutorial on how to control your visibility. There's all kinds of options to change how close your location listing will be to where you're detected as being by your phone.
One nice thing about Latitude is that you can manually drag a map marker to a location to register as being there. I haven't figured out how to do that on Brightkite yet.
Every time you visit the Latitude web page on the iPhone, your location is updated. If you'd like to have more control over the experience, or manually refresh it, you have to click through a few screens and then (I think) click on an unmarked blue button.
On Brightkite, "checking in" is a very conscious act.
There is no way page for Latitude! When you visit the service's home page you are prompted to install an iGoogle widget for Latitude. That's where you do some basic account and friend management, but there's no RSS feeds, no direct access to the page, it's like one of those dime store games where you tilt a box covered in plastic around to navigate some object through a maze. You can't touch the object, you can't touch the maze, it's an odd way to participate in a social network.
Just for the sake of comparison, the Brightkite web page is remarkably well designed and full featured. There are RSS and KML (map data) feeds for every user. That means you can do interesting things with the information, offsite.
The only way to view your friends on Latitude is in the order they have checked-in in, the most recently updated first. Why would you not be allowed to see who is closest to you?
On Brightkite I didn't even need to add any friends for the service to be interesting - I can view people who are within the same region, city, area or block as me and have updated their location publicly.
If any of those startups came out with an offering as boring as Latitude they wouldn't be taken seriously at all. It's clearly Google's size, access to our address books, ability to push users to a new service through other established services and the unspoken concern about Google knowing where we are that combine to make Latitude interesting. There's also a chance that Latitude could become something fabulous, as many other Google products have. There are many other Google products that have not, though, as well. So far Latitude, even for the iPhone, isn't worth much time and isn't a good indicator of the potential of the location based social networking genre.