Google Latitude, Google's location-based friend tracking service, was spotted last night in the Japanese iTunes App Store, thanks to a TechCrunch tipster. Shortly thereafter, the application was pulled down and is now no longer available. Obviously, Latitude's iPhone launch was a bit premature. But it's coming. Soon.An iPhone application for
Latitude vs. Check-in Apps
Latitude is Google's own take on friend-tracking location-based services. Like Foursquare, you can use Latitude to see where your friends are, but the similarity ends there. Latitude is a completely different animal than your typical check-in app.
On check-in applications like Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Brightkite and others, you check in to a physical venue through a very manual process. To check in, you launch an app on your smartphone, it locates you via GPS and returns a list of places. You then select the location where you are from the list provided and the app will check you in to that place. It may also dole out a virtual reward of some kind for doing so, including things like points, a stamp or badge or, in the case of Foursquare, the honorary title of Mayor if you've checked in to that venue more than any other user. Sometimes, a coupon or discount is provided by the merchant to those who participate by checking in, too. However, outside of urban tech hotspots like New York and San Francisco, this is still a decidedly hit-or-miss operation.
Latitude, on the other hand, is a real-time tracking service. There aren't badges and coupons here, there is only a pushpin on a map, indicating your location. For users of Google's Android smartphones, tracking your location as you move around town is a built in feature, assuming you've opted in to the service. No dedicated app is needed - it works within Google Maps. However, on iPhone, background location-tracking of this nature requires a native app.
Up until now, I've been using Latitudie for this purpose on iPhone, a third-party application that shares my location with my Latitude friends (err, friend - more on that later). Unfortunately, a recent update has left the app non-functional - it always crashes now. An official Google app will be welcome, to say the least.
Is Latitude Right For You?
But the big question you need to answer now, as the service is poised to become a hundred times more useful thanks to its new, true cross-platform nature is this: should you use it?
Latitude has three privacy settings: detect your location (automatic), set your location (manual) or hide your location. Frankly, the only setting that makes the service worth using is its automatic detection functionality. That alone delivers a huge benefit over Latitude competitors like Foursquare, for example, which requires additional third-party applications like Mayor Maker or Future Checkin to perform automatic check-ins on your behalf.
Of course, you could manually set your location in Latitude - and I'm sure some of you do - but if you're bothering to do all that, why not use a service where you're liable to get an occasional discount or coupon instead? Or, alternately, a dedicated app for private location-sharing like Glympse? (More on that here.)
Over-Friending is a Bad Idea on Latitude
Although Latitude's background tracking is great to have, this major benefit is also the service's biggest privacy concern, too. Automatically sharing your location, in real-time, with all your friends? They had better be good, good friends. In other words, think carefully before accepting friend requests from "that guy you know online." As for me, I only use Latitude with family. I use check-in apps with a wider group of friends.
Some may dismiss this as being overly paranoid, but I think it's just paranoid enough. As a technology enthusiast, I'm happy to embrace location-based services to some extent, but I draw the line at allowing a wide group of "friends" - the same online group of early adopters that follows each other around from service to service - to track my physical location in real-time, plotted on a map. Maybe it's partially because I'm a woman that I feel this way. Or maybe it's because enough of my friends and family have been victims of violence for me to not casually disregard my own privacy and safety, but ultimately the main reason is this: the only person who really needs to know where I am at any given moment (and vice versa) is the one I'm married to. (That metaphor would extend to the rest of my family, too, but the little one is still in diapers - no smartphone yet.) Meanwhile, if my friends want to meet up for coffee, they're welcome to call, email, Facebook or text.
That's an opinion of course. You may feel differently, and that's fine. The trick is figuring out how much location transparency you're comfortable with before signing up for services like this and friending dozens of folks. At least Google is kind enough to send regular emails reminding you that you're sharing your location on Latitude, in case you've forgotten. That effort shows that even Google takes your location-sharing seriously; you should certainly do the same.