“I started BuddyPing as a hobby, and it kinda just took over my life.”
So says Justin Davies who launched an open beta version of BuddyPing as a “bet” nine months ago. Normally the head of the small London-based mobile consultancy Ninety Ten is more used to advising other startups and companies on their mobile strategy. BuddyPing was going to be different. This was his baby.
Yesterday Davies, who built the site on his own using Ruby on Rails, went live with a new version. This could see the service substantially escalate in take-up. So far it has relied on simple word of mouth to garner its 5,000 users. However, the new version is likely to make bigger waves given its extra functionality and further plans. This is “MoSoSo” (Mobile Social Software) in action.
Having looked both at the previous beta and the new version, I can say that BuddyPing could well be one of the best un-funded startups in the UK today, combining some of the best elements of mobility, presence, social networking and user generated content.
Davies says BuddyPing is privately funded at the moment, “but will be looking for funding in the future to expand the service to other countries.” Currently BuddyPing only works in the UK.
The idea behind BuddyPing is simple and the execution deceptively simple, making something quite complex appear effortless. Text your location to BuddyPing and it will text you back with the location of your friends (if they’re BuddyPing members) and what they’re doing. As Davies says: “The crux of BuddyPing is a ‘friend finder’ using the location features of the main mobile operators.”
Davies believes the social networking effect of users wanting to keep in touch with relevant local events and people could be the long-desired key to the success of mobile location-based advertising. To date social networking has been an absent element in location-based services, which – in most incarnations – have had limited success.
To do its work BuddyPing pulls the full, triangulated location of the user’s mobile handset from the mobile networks (BuddyPing pays for that data). Currently this means O2, Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange, while Hutchinson’s 3 has its own Location System that is not available to aggregators like BuddyPing. Davies admits that this is “relatively expensive compared to what is usually involved in a 2.0 startup.”
But the opportunity, Davies says, is in offsetting that cost with true location-based advertising as well as white label versions of BuddyPing created for… well anyone, but in particular, brands and marketers associated with a mobile-savvy, largely youthful audience.
For instance, BuddyPing could use location information to pick up an advert or sponsor message that’s relevant to a person there and then. This might include offering discounts.
So, in a previous incarnation of BuddyPing (no longer live and barely publicised), the Masterfoods sweets brand Skittles sponsored a BuddyPing sub-site which offered users a free BuddyPing account under the ‘Skittles Big Summer’ promotion. The brand then picked up the costs on behalf of users who signed up to the promotion. What happened to that trial I don’t know, but its interesting to note that it even happened.
So how does it all work?
Once registered and verified, a BuddyPing can network on the site, invite friends, add friends and do many of the usual social software activities. There is less ability to ‘dress up’ one’s profile a la MySpace, but this is not the heart of the service anyway.
A user can personalise their regular locations (Home, Office, etc) and get the site to ‘auto-locate’ them. They can add photos (see below), send and receive email inside the system. A user can import their contacts from Hotmail/MSN, Google GMail, or Yahoo, or just invite friends via normal email.
If you choose to import them from Gmail for instance, BuddyPing will automatically match the email addresses in your address book with existing BuddyPing users. If it finds a match, it will automatically send an invite to that person to become your ‘friend’. You can also select other people in your address book and BuddyPing will send those people an invite too.
When your friends login to the system via text, you get a text if they’re nearby, and they get a text back saying you are nearby. The number of friends is limited to the 5 closest friends and “nearby” in Buddyping terms is 10 miles. A user could one day manually set it to, say, 1 mile, but that is not available in the system right now, although Davies says it could be added, or the default distance changed.
While ‘pinging your buddies’is the central feature of the service, Groups and Events messaging (see below) seem like they might end up being more powerful, since it’s clearly possible for friends to just tell each-other via text where they are without BuddyPing.
In fact anyone on BuddyPing can SMS a user but BuddyPing confirms their mobile number and keeps a record of it. This stops Spam and makes the sender pay the charge of the SMS (about 25p, the only aspect of BuddyPing currently charged for). The cost to the end user for a mobile location lookup is zero – in other words it costs me nothing to ping my ‘buddies’ my location.
A user can set your location on BuddyPing texting 60300 starting with the words “ping [name of location].” BuddyPing works out semantically what you have said, so you could ping it with “Camden” (in London) or “Moss Side” (in Manchester).
The mobile version of the web site simply allows a login, displays a map of where your friends are, allows you to send them a message and the ability to tell BuddyPing your current location.
A BuddyPing user profile can also create a Flash-based widget, which a user can place on their blog or social network homepage.
A user can publish their location to the Web widget. It doesn’t display the user’s exact location, since this would cross the line into privacy and have safety concerns, however it does indicate a relative location such as “Covent Garden”. Only a user’s authorised friends can see where they are via the site.
The widget they publish on another site will also show their uploaded photos, and allow anyone to send the user an SMS. BuddyPing charges the sender for this to stop Spam to the mobile.
PHOTOS AND FLICKR SYNC
BuddyPing users can MMS (Multi-media Message) photos from their phone and have them appear on BuddyPing, or directly upload them to the site (storage is unlimited). A very smart feature of BuddyPing is that it both geo-codes the photos and allows a user to enable synchronisation with a Flickr account. This means that any image a user sends via MMS in will be geo-coded by BuddyPing and added to their Flickr account.
In about a month, Davies plans to add “Groups” and “Event” functionality.
The Events function will allow someone to add a private event (only them), a public event (everyone on BuddyPing), or just their friends. BuddyPing sends an SMS reminder to the user reminding them the event is about to take place and automatically changes their listed location on the BuddyPing map to be at the event’s location.
Eventually, when a user is at an event, any SMS or MMS message they send will automatically be added to the event homepage, allowing people to see what is happening in real-time, says Davies.
The planned Groups function will allow any user to build their own mobile community around location, photos, events and blog posts, all from the mobile.
BuddyPing also plans to allow users to upload video to their galleries, thus tapping into the now widespread appetite for video clip culture. Users will also be able to contribute locations of ‘venues’, like places to meet. Furthermore, a Java client that runs on most phones is also in development.
Jaiku.com, a Helsinki-based startup that features founders such as Jyri Engeström (currently
head of the now cult-like Nokia 770 web tablet responsible for the development of new Nokia products based on the open source Linux software architecture developed for the Nokia 770 internet tablet), is a somewhat more developed project than BuddyPing, which has a “full presence” integration on Symbian phones.
However, Davies thinks the problem with Jaiku “is that the location information is not spatially aware”. This means that a user can say they are at ‘Work’ in Islington, but Jaiku has no way of semantically understanding that Holborn is 2 miles away or provide information about that area or suggest that “Justin is 2 miles away from James, and that there is also a Starbucks nearby.” When compared to Jaiku, BuddyPing does not tie directly into the phone to offer presence information for BuddyPing contacts, but it is semantically aware of the user’s location which has other advantages.
In the US Dodgeball.com is the startup which springs to mind in the mobile social software space, and, Davies admits, inspired him to get into location-based services.
Like BuddyPing it is also spatially aware but it only works in some States in the US and the geo-coding is done on a ‘venue by venue’ basis. In other words if a location is not in the Dodgeball system, a user cannot set it as their location. So, for instance, Dodgeball knows about the Starbucks on 5th Avenue but not the independent coffee house nearby. BuddyPing allows users to be more fluid in how they describe their location.
Put simply, so long as a user has a mobile signal Davies says “we should be able to locate you, tell you where your friends are, and any other relevant information about the local area that we support.”
It is still early days for location-based services, which have had many false dawns and mobile operators have been talking about LBS for several years but have never really found a way to capitalise on them. GPS in mobile handsets could in theory jump-start LBS. ABI Research predicts that by 2011, there will be 315 million GPS subscribers for location based services, up from only 12 million this year. But aside from mapping there seems to be precious other services.
A group of UK and Irish students on IBM’s Extreme Blue internship programme has developed location-aware messaging accessibility (Lama) technology to give people information about locations via their mobiles – but this lacks the transformative and disruptive power of folksonomy and social networking. Recall the difference of seeing Google Earth and then switching on the community commenting features and you get a taste of what really good location-based services could do, powered by ordinary users.
Davies comments: “I think the market for LBS communities on the mobile is still very young, and people are trying things out to see what works and what does not. One thing I will say is that I think the market will mature quickly as the likes of Google, Yahoo! and MySpace weigh in their two pence to build context and community into their mobile plays.”
MySpace is already available on the Helio mobile service in the US, and here in Europe Scandinavian social network Playahead.com has done some pioneering work in making its service work on the mobile.
While Google optimistically thinks phones should be free, serving up relevant adverts based on location, it would appear services like BuddyPing could have far more success by introducing the social and communication element to location.