Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Google Latitude - Reports from beyond the velvet rope

Back in May, I treated myself to the HTC Desire, which runs on Google's Android operating system. One of the benefits of this operating system is that it acts as an intravenous delivery system for Google's rather nifty mobile applications. The Gmail client is solid, the Google Maps with turn-by-turn directions has saved me countless hours wandering around badly laid out Irish cities, and Google Translate allows me to swear at my phone and have it translated into a foreign language, instantly rescuing me from boring conversations at parties!

Google Latitude is a rather unusual service from the search giants that makes known your (phone's) current location to anyone you've granted access. Pretty simple idea, but Google have built some cool features on top of this simple idea.

Since I have an Android phone, and most of my friends don't, I feel like (for the first time) the cool guy who has been to the exclusive club, so I want to share with you plebs what kind of exotic delights you're missing out on.

Exotic delights like a handy pie-chart representation of how you spend your time:

(See the gap between July and August? That was my blogging hiatus)

Ever wondered "What's the furthest I've been from home?"
5,145 miles for me! (Since May 2010, anyhow)

Can't remember all those countries you've been to? Now you don't have to!
This barren map makes me want to spend obscene amounts of money to add a bit of colour

What are the places I visit most often? (Do I spend more time at my mother's or father's house?)

No wonder I spend more time at my mother's - look at the extra amenities!

Latitude can also be used to trigger proximity alerts. These SMS or E-mail alerts can trigger when you or your friend "are at an unusual place, filtering out routine alert cases at home or work", or "are at a routine place but at an unusual time". Neat! Hopefully things like this increase the amount of "chance encounters" with the kind of friends I'd hope to run into.

Bored? Why not watch a sped up version of the last 500 locations you've visited? Just click on the 'play' arrow in the top right corner of the map and watch your life being pissed away by going to work, driving around, going home, and sleeping over and over and over again!

The service as a whole is cool, but it's not quite perfect. I was immediately offended when it suggested that I spend a mere 22 hours a week at work on average, but I realised that Latitude thinks I'm half a mile away from my current position when I disable the GPS on my phone to save battery. It's no wonder that the 'out' slice of my pie-chart is so meaty. Also, saving the last 500 locations in the history might sound like plenty, but in practice it only goes back a few days - if your phone pings your location every few minutes for a couple of hours, each ping is logged as a separate location. If each recorded 'location' represented a different set of coordinates, the history feature would be much more useful.

Well, what about the privacy implications? I had only planned on leaving Latitude switched on long enough to populate the dashboard with some information, but now I'm starting to enjoy it. The amount of consideration that Google has put into privacy seems almost excessive, even in light of the Google Buzz fiasco. By default, e-mails are sent out monthly with the subject line: "Reminder - You are sharing your location with Latitude applications", which is a good thing too, because I had almost forgotten about it after I first activated it.

If you want to throw caution to the wind and share your location with everyone, you can create a location badge, which you can put on your blog for your fourteen yearly visitors not to give a shit about. Google is wise enough to offer a pared-down functionality, in which only city-level data is shared.

So far, I only have one one friend set up on Latitude, and it's been novel checking the widget on my phone and seeing how far away he is from my current position. I take it he enjoys the novelty too. Mere moments after I touched down in Shannon after a fortnight in the States, I got a text message from him that read "Welcome home!" Creepy.

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