When Loopt first launched on the iPhone alongside the App Store in 2008, it looked to be an awesome new location-based service. Apple clearly agreed, as they gave the app plenty of face time: demo slots on stage at major events, appearances in commercials, promotion in the App Store, etc. But the early version of Loopt had a fatal flaw: to work properly, the app had to be running all the time. Now, this wasn’t really Loopt’s flaw, since the iPhone did not allow third-party applications to run in the background — but it was still a flaw. Today, that flaw gets corrected — sort of.
The new version of Loopt, 3.0, which is set to appear in the App Store at some point today, is built to use Apple’s new iOS 4 software (formerly known as iPhone OS 4). The biggest new addition to the software is the ability for third-party apps to run processes in the background. Yes, this is somewhat limited, but included in what you can do is location-updating in the background. And Loopt 3.0 takes full advantage of that. But at the same time, it also still offers the functionality that proved to be more popular on the iPhone: check-ins.
While continually updating location apps like Loopt failed to catch on in a major way due to the earlier iPhone limitations, check-in based apps like Foursquare and Gowalla have gotten traction recently by getting around this limitation because they explicitly make a user check-in at a venue. The idea became so popular that in November of last year that Loopt pivoted away from implicit location, to this check-in model with version 2.0 of its app. Version 3.0 shift back a bit towards the implicit background location, but marries it with the check-in.
So how does background location work with Loopt 3.0? Well, when you check-in to a venue, there is a new “Live Location” area at the bottom of the check-in screen. This is a slider which allows you to set how long you’d like Loopt to update your location in the background without you having to do anything. This slider can be set from anywhere to a few minutes up to 8 hours. When it’s set, if the iPhone notices you’ve left an area (which it can tell by your phone switching cell towers), it will update your location on the Loopt map that is built in to the software.
Now, it’s important to note that Loopt is thinking about the privacy ramifications of this. They have a setting to make it so that background location updates can only been seen by a small subset of your social graph. This way, you can make it so only a group like your family can see where you are in real-time. And again, to see this, they’ll have to load up the map on Loopt since this background location feature won’t explicitly check you in at a venue — it just shows where you are on this map.
If you do allow your larger social graph to see this background location information, you can imagine that it may lead to even more serendipitous encounters than the current batch of check-in apps do. As I’ve noted recently, one big downside of check-in apps is that there’s no real way to “check-out” — that is, let your friends know you’ve left a venue. The only way to do this is to check-in someplace else. With background location enabled, your friends could see that while you may have checked-in to the pizza joint an hour ago, you’ve since left and are a mile away from there.
This background location features offers something else cool: if Loopt sees that a friend of yours (using background location) is nearby, it can send you a Push Notification to alert you of that.
It’s worth noting that the iPhone limitation wasn’t the only thing keeping background location from taking off. After all, phones such as those running Android and some BlackBerry phones have had the ability to update location in the background for some time. And while apps like Google Latitude say this model is working on Android, the public largely doesn’t see it that way — at least not yet. The underlying issue here seems to be that by having explicit check-ins, it’s a natural security barrier. People can only know where you are when you explicitly say where you are. With background location, you have to remember that you may be telling people where you are implicitly.
Latitude does things like ping you every so often to remind you that you’re sharing this data, but it’s still kind of a clunky user experience. As I mentioned, Loopt’s method is to set the slider for how long you’d like to update you location in the background — and no matter what, it times out after 8 hours unless you explicitly turn it on again. This seems like a pretty good idea.
On top of the new background location feature, Loopt 3.0 brings an overhauled UI. The new main screen is a big improvement (think: main iPhone screen or Facebook main screen).
Judging from Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley’s comments to us last week, Loopt should have a healthy head start with this background location functionality. But if it proves to be successful, you can bet the rivals will hop on board quickly. Latitude, meanwhile, it evaluating trying to bring a native app to the iPhone for use with iOS 4 — you may recall Apple wouldn’t let them in the store the last time around, so they built a web app.
When it’s available, you can find Loopt 3.0 here in the App Store. It’s a free download.