It was almost exactly two years ago that Google launched Latitude, their location-based service. Two years may not seem like a long time, but it’s “the equivalent of a decade in location services,” Latitude PM Ken Norton jokes. Most importantly, it was just before Foursquare launched to the world at SXSW in 2009. That changed the entire game, literally, as Google CEO Eric Schmidt likes to say. You see, it brought the idea of the “check-in” into play. And that ended up being the idea that launched a thousand location-based services. Today, finally, Google is getting on board with that idea.
Yes, the check-in is coming to Latitude — finally.
Latitude at its core has always been about sharing your best available location with people on a continuous basis. In other words, it was a service that relied on location updates running constantly in the background. “It has been good for seeing where you are, but not seeing where you ARE,” is now Norton puts it. In other words, you could see that a friend was at a place on a map, but not that they were at a Starbucks. To find that out for sure, you’d still have to send them a text.
But now Latitude will have a check-in feature that will use Google Places’ place database. “Users have been asking for this for a while, but we realized we could do this differently. Check-ins are great, but let’s combine them with continuous location,” Norton says.
And so there will be three key features of the new product. First, there will be check-in notifications. These will pop up on your phone when you go somewhere and forget to check-in (if you turn them on, of course). Because your location is still being constantly updated in the background, when you stop at a certain location for long enough, Google can tell that you’re at a particular place and can alert you to check-in there. “This is a little more convenient than pulling out the app to hunt and search for your location each time,” Norton says.
Second, Latitude is doing automatic check-ins. Again, if you opt-in to this, Latitude will be able to register the places you go to often and will know to automatically tell your friends you’re there without you having to do anything. Norton notes that this is useful for work, which perhaps is the place you’re at most often, but get sick of manually checking-in at all the time.
Third, Latitude will have a check-out feature as well. While subtle, this is very useful. Again, thanks to the background location element, Google can tell if you’ve left a place that you’ve checked-in and will effectively “check you out” of that location so friends don’t show up looking for you after you’ve left.
The downside, sadly, is that this check-in feature will be available only on Android devices at first. While Norton says they’re working as quickly as they can to bring it to their iPhone app, since that app is so new, they’re still not as quick when it comes to updates yet. So instead, this will be a part of Google Maps 5.1 for Android starting today.
Norton notes that Latitude has 10 million active users now — making it one of the largest (if not the largest) location-based service out there. He’s quick to note that they measure this by monthly active users, not overall registration. That number will surprise a lot of people as Latitude doesn’t get anywhere near the hype that Foursquare, Gowalla, and others get. Clearly, Google hopes that will change with the check-in feature. It certainly will bring more utility to the app for many of those users.
Of course, the location game is also much different than it was two years ago. Not only has Foursquare caught on with a lot of mainstream media, but Facebook is now in the space with Places.
In terms of competing places databases, Norton jokes that “we help by not creating yet another one.” Again, Latitude will use Google Places to populate the venues that users can check-in to. He also notes that they have a Places API and that others are welcome to use elements of it for their own location services. And he says that going forward, the Latitude team is open to exploring any features users want, such as the ability to update the place database manually.
In terms of the all-important deals, Norton says that they have nothing to announce at this time. Deals have proven to be a key part of Foursquare and will be a key part of Facebook Places. They’re also a part of Google Places, so you have to imagine that eventually, Latitude will get these too.
Now the most important question: what about the mayor? Norton says that there are “loyalty levels” built in. The three he mentions are “Regular”, “Guru”, and “VIP”. Of those, Guru is the big one, then VIP, then regular. But how you obtain each title will vary from place to place — since people visit coffee shops more than the dentist, for example. And there can be multiple recipients of each distinction at each location, he says.
Right now, Latitude will allow you to share your check-ins in two ways: to your friends within Latitude, and with the ability to post to your public Google Profile. That’s right, you can’t send your location to Twitter or Facebook — at least not yet. Norton says they’re considering other services to send your location information to. But it’s a bit trick since Latitude has a history of being a more contained network with tighter social controls.
He does think the check-in may completely change the way people use Latitude, as they could be more open to accepting more friends now, but only sharing their city-level location with them and/or their explicit check-ins. They could then allow true friends to see their constantly updating location, he says.
It will be interesting to see how this changes Latitude. The continuous location plus check-ins is a smart play (albeit one Loopt has been doing for some time), but it brings up both potentially privacy and battery life issues. In terms of the latter, Norton says his team has spent a lot of time worry about battery issues over the past two years. And they’ve gotten so good, he says, that the battery hit for background location is now “negligible”. That’s good news.
Now bring the check-in to the iPhone, please.