Speculating about the future is always a silly idea – because the futurologist who is speculating is invariably always wrong. You only have to look at the insane ramblings of the fundamentalist Christians in America who predict the “end times” every new year or the deluded announcer who introduces John McCain as “the next President of the United States” to see this. The technology sector isn’t exempt from this either – there’s the famous old quotes of IBM executives saying in the 1960s that they think there’s demand for maybe four computers in the world, or poor old Sir Clive Sinclair, who genuinely thought that the C5 was a good idea, or poor old Sony, who thought that people might actually want a PS3.
So with this in mind, I’m going to set myself up for a gigantic fall, and go ahead and claim that location-based web services are going to be the next big thing. Feel free to e-mail me a link to this column with a wry note in the future when I have been proven wrong.
What do I mean by location-based services? I’m talking about things that take your position in the world into account, where you can upload your current location to a service, and it will adapt what happens based on your location. Though these technologies are not fully mature, there are some embryonic signs that show the potential of what we could have in the future, and that’s what I’m going to be looking at in today’s mash-up.
One example of the sort of thing I’m talking about is the Twitter client Twinkle, for the iPhone – as well as send and receieve tweets like the 50 billion other Twitter clients about (slight exaggeration), when you tweet it will upload your GPS location, using the iPhone’s built in GPS, to the Twinkle servers, and as a consequence, you can then go on to view the tweets of people in a user-definable radius to you, even if you’re not following them. What’s great about this is that it allows you to see what’s going on near you – and I’m sure a new media social psychologist academic type would talk about imposing a new local layer of communication on to local communities or something at this point.
There has been talk of integrating this sort of location based stuff into Twitter-proper – something that could be the “killer app” that causes location stuff to take off. Imagine being able to view a near real time map of where all of your Twitter friends are… one can only hope that they’re working on it right now, as they’d be stupid not to.
One of the most exciting emerging platforms for this location stuff is perhaps Yahoo’s Fire Eagle, which is designed to do a lot of the hard work for developers and make life easier for users too. Simply put, Fire Eagle acts as a bridge between you and all of the websites/services that may want access to your current location. The idea is that you get an account, and then when you update one application with your current location, or your mobile phone does so automatically or whatever, it will then update all of the other sites with your new location – and it works in the other direction too, when you update another website, it will send it via Fire Eagle to the first site. What’s great about Fire Eagle too is that there’s varying levels of privacy, meaming you can choose to only reveal, say, the city you’re in to one site, whilst giving another your exact location. But this is all a little abstract… so what fire eagle supporting location-based apps are there?
Wikinear is great – once it knows your location, it’ll send you links to Wikipedia pages about interesting stuff that is nearnby – not so useful in the countryside, perhaps, but if you’re in central London and wondering what that fancy looking building in front of you is, Wikinear can probably give you the complete history on your mobile phone.
Similarly, if you want to find the latest news relative to your exact location, if you’re lucky enough to live in one of the 11,000+ towns covered by outside.in, it can use your location to provide to this – though on testing it at the time of writing, from the Strand in central London, a mere stone’s throw away from the centres of politics and finance, it seems to insist on telling me what is going on in a small village in Cambridgeshire, rather than the biggest city in Europe. Bizarre.
If you have a blog, you might want to put your location on there – after all, if you’re going to put all of your awful opinions online, then you’re implicitly saying to your readers “feel free to punch me in the face if I’m wrong” – and your readers need to know where to find you. Helpfully, there are Movable Type and WordPress plugins available, as well as basic “badge” functionality.
But perhaps the most obvious implementation of this sort of technology is social networks. At the moment there’s a few located-based social networks competing for the social networking crown.
Brightkite is perhaps one of the… better established… location-based social networks, but that isn’t saying much since it still seem to have approximately ten users. I mentioned this last week about hooking it into your Twitter feed – add the power of fire-eagle and updating your location becomes even easier.
Loki is another social network. It’s a little thin on the ground at the moment but does have one big plus: it sports some integration with Facebook, the daddy of social networking. Unfortunately, unless I’m an idiot, I can’t seem to make Facebook display, say, a map of my current location, on my profile, or indeed allow me to view the locations of my friends who also use Loki… but it can’t be that difficult for them to implement, can it?
Similarly, there’s also Plazes and ZKOUT competing for the “location-based social network with the most ridiculous name” award – the former has been recently aquired by Nokia, who are a small Finnish company you might have heard of – apparently they make mobile phones and GPS things that could really benefit from location-based stuff. As far as I can tell from ZKOUT though is that it’s just a horrible flashy mess.
The real killer social-network though is going to be when Facebook officially gets it’s act together and supports location services -la but until that happens, you’re stuck with these.
So there’s an overview of the emerging location-based things. With Fire Eagle, the potential for “mash-ups” are limitless – especially as it has an easily accessible API for developers to use to give their applications and websites the power of knowing where you are.