An Unlikely Entrant In The Location App Race At SXSW: Ask.com

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There’s a fairly insane rush currently underway to launch new services in time for SXSW next week. Most of these are obviously startups hoping to hit it big at the conference and ride that success to greatness just as Twitter and Foursquare did. And then there’s another player, of an entirely different scale, looking to leverage the conference with a brand new location-based app: Ask.com.

When you think of Ask.com, you definitely don’t think of a location-based app. But that’s exactly what the service has built, completely unrelated to their flagship search engine. And it’s actually a pretty cool, simple idea.

Ask Around is an iPhone app that uses your location to put you into a room with others using the app around you to have simple conversations. If this sounds like the just-launched Yobonogo, it is a bit like it. But it has a few key elements that are different. And more importantly, the genesis of the app was totally different.

Ask Around comes as a result of the ways people were using their flagship app. That app, which has 500,000 downloads, crowd-sources answers to questions that aren’t currently handled by the service’s main website. And engagement was so great to the point where people were starting to have conversations within the app. But rather than build out that functionality on the main app, which is still meant to be about asking questions and finding answers, Ask.com President Doug Leeds decided it would be fun to design a product from the ground up with location-based chat functionality.

It was a very organic thing,” Leeds says, noting that it’s exciting to be able to get back to building new products at Ask. He feels as if the company was spending too much time on marketing in recent years. “That’s not in the DNA of the company, product is,” he says.

The way Ask Around works is simple. You open the app and you’re immediately put into a chat room with others around you. The key is that you can set the radius for that location. So it can be just a few hundred yards (those like in the same building as you) or it can be up to 15 miles (those in the same city as you). And that location can be adjusted on the fly to tailor the conversation.

But the even cooler aspect may be the ability to drop yourself anywhere in the world and hear conversations happening there. For example, if you dropped a pin around where TED is currently happening, you could follow along with the conversations people are having at that conference (well, if the app were live already). And you can save these locations to jump to later. And you can share these saved spots with other users.

One note: if you go to a different location, you can’t actually chat there, just listen in. This is for obvious spam and relevance reasons.

All of these conversations will also be streamed on the web. So an owner of a bar, for example, could put up a monitor to display conversations happening in realtime from that location.

While the app isn’t live in the App Store just yet (it will be just before SXSW), you can go here for more information. And watch the video for more.

Update: And in a surprise move, the app was actually approved a bit early. So you can find it in the App Store right now, here.

Here are a couple examples of people already chatting.