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With yesterday's announcement of Facebook read/write APIs into Places, it seems to be a good time to reflect on a) location aggregation, b) finding your lost grandmother, and c) lazy user interaction design.
Sure, there are plenty of services that will let you "check-in" to your favorite restaurant, bar, club, airport, or friend's girlfriend's house. The process is usually quite simple: Fire up an app on your iPhone, Android or smart phone of choice, choose your location, add a witty blurb (or not), and you've joined the throngs of other hipsters broadcasting their latest conquest. Heck, you might even earn a badge or a coveted mayorship for your hard work.
Unfortunately, if your square friends aren't using one of these services they'll never know how hip you are, so you'd have to resort to publishing your location out to your status message, wall, feed or some other activity stream. Facebook's announcement today changes things slightly in that it will aggregate your check-ins from a variety of sources and then make that location data available in their semantically friendly Graph API. Facebook, FTW.
@bhavishya: Checkin to Foursquare and find out where your friends who checked in on Gowalla are #FBMobile
Bam! Now your friends can drop a pin on a map, get turn-by-turn directions and know what bars to avoid just by pinging your Facebook location.
Now, your non-smartphone-carrying friend (c'mon, we all have them) is saying: "Man, I wish I could use one of these awesome location services, but my $29.97 phone won't run any of these apps." Fear not, there's an app for that. Or to be more precise, there's an API for that. It's called Location Based Services and your cell phone knows all about it.
Back in the day emergency folks found it hard to dispatch fire and police to 911 calls from cell phones. Luckily, the government stepped in and mandated that all mobile operators provide latitude and longitude information with every call to 911. What does this mean for you and me (and Facebook)? That nifty, GPS-lacking feature phone in your friend's pocket and your grandmother's purse is just as capable of broadcasting its location as your wiz-bang smartphone. In fact, over at Open API Service, we're aggregating network location from a variety of carriers and making it available to developers in a ridiculously simple API. (Even I can use it, and I'm not a developer, by far.)
But what if you or your friend are too lazy to check-in all the time? Ah, so there's the catch. You don't need to check in. Your phone is always broadcasting so the carriers always know where you are. Creepy? Then don't opt-in. But this could solve a serious issue with user interaction on location services. I may be going out on a limb here, but I'd venture that most of us probably don't think to check-in to every place we visit. Network location provided by Location Based Services is an easy way to passively provide your location to friends. You just need your phone turned on and preferably somewhere near you.
No, network location probably can't tell whether you're in the coffee shop or the bookstore next door. Perhaps you could store your path through a city and then check-in to a few spots when you get back to your house (like after-the-fact GPS waypoints or a quasi-form of geocaching). Who knows? The point is, users don't have to do anything to enable this. And, as mobile operators start to deploy more and more femto (or small cell) technology, the accuracy of these services will increase, too. Eventually they could tell that you're at Gate 13 in DFW as opposed to Gate 14.
So, hey, developers, what do you say we take the millions of feature phones out there, chuck the need to build an app, opt-in users' phones and help them start broadcasting locations to their friends today.
Justin Tormey is the senior manager of API programs at Alcatel-Lucent and the former director of product management for MTV's APIs, video platform and digital distribution. Follow Justin on Twitter at twitter.com/justintormey.