Google Latitude, the search giant's mobile location service, has announced this morning that it is adding the ability to check in to specific places to its Android and iPhone apps. Android users will be able to check in automatically, using two brand new, different and very interesting methods. Latitude has now been live for 2 years and Google says it has 10 million monthly users, making it much more popular than the more high-profile startups in this space.
Why is Google working on mobile location tracking and sharing? It's all about search and relevance. "Our idea is to organize the world's information and part of that is location," Latitude's Ken Norton told us. "Location is a vector against which all factors and metrics will be considered."
New Ways to Check In on Latitude
Latitude users to date have shared their literal location on a map with a select group of family and friends. Just because friends knew where on a map you were, though, doesn't mean they knew what "place" you were at. (Coffee shop or hospital emergency room?)
All latitude users will now be able to check-in with their phones to specific Google Places locations. When Latitude for the iPhone launched in December, I called it a big disappointment. These new developments are an improvement for sure.
Will Latitude allow users to publish check-ins out to other services like Foursquare, Gowalla or Facebook? "We are currently looking at ways to publish to other services," Google's Norton says. "It's an incremental feature to adress the needs of Latitude users." The ability to read check-ins from other services, like Gowalla now allows, seems even further out in the future. Despite what they say about interoperability, most of these location services would still like to be the only game in town.
Two new methods that other location services don't offer yet: Android Latitude users can now opt-in to receive a push notification when they have stopped moving for a period of time at a place that Google recognizes. "We see you're hanging out at Hot Pot City on 2nd avenue," the notification might say. "Would you like to check in there?" Hallelujah!
The next method beyond clicking to check-in as is standard across location apps is a new "geofencing" method. Latitude users on Android can designate certain places they visit frequently and be checked-in there automatically whenever their phone detects that they've returned to that spot.
Both of these are very smart features that will greatly reduce the overhead on checking in and thus greatly increase the frequency with which people declare their location to the web. That's great news.
Norton says that his team is working hard to get the iPhone app for Latitude caught up with Android. I hope these automated check-ins will come to the iPhone app soon. Eventually all location services will likely offer features exactly like these.
Geo-organized Web Content?
Will Google make my dreams come true and help surface news and web content relevant to the Places I visit, automatically? Norton said that Latitude and Google Places would do some of that, but said that Google Goggles was more focused on that kind of search.
I check-in at the park down the street, and there's a beautiful PDF walking tour of the trees in that park available online, but it's on page 3 of Google search results. It ought to be shown to me much more accessibly.
"Rather than building what users ask for, " Norton says, "ask what the problems are that you could solve. With Latitude, I want my spouse to know where I am. I don't think people would have known to ask for that."
That makes sense, but the mark of truly great innovation is creating things that people don't even know they want yet. I'm worried that Latitude, for all its innovation, is going to remain mundane in the long-term. Maybe even get into mobile coupons. Boring!
Give me something I don't even know I want yet, Google. But first, give me automatic check-ins on iPhone and read/write interoperability with diverse location services. Those sound great.