Your Friend Is Only A Mile Away. Did You Know?
Most friend-finding location-based apps are missing key ingredients. The two main issues being that they don't constantly announce my location and I have to build a new social network. Yet, a new app is launching this week called Stalqer (www.stalqer.com), which looks to be addressing some of these issues.
Location apps fall mainly into one of two segments. The first are increasingly mature apps like Google Maps, Buzzd and Yelp. These apps locate you, and then recommend products or services nearby.
The second, less mature but very exciting, area of innovation is the "announce me" apps that can be used for a number of purposes -- the most popular being friend-finding and social networking. Several apps are trying to offer this solution, such as Google Latitude, Loopt and Foursquare, but none have succeeded in making it work just yet.
Key to Success
One of the primary problems to solve is being able to constantly publish my location. On the iPhone especially, you can't run background applications so it is difficult to constantly announce your location without the app being open. Foursquare has a novel workaround to this. They use a gaming element to incentivize users to constantly 'check-in' at a location, thus providing a semi-regular location update. But it still requires constant and deliberate user action to "check-in."
For the iPhone, Loopt recently announced a deal with AT&T to provide constant location updates, but at a cost of $4 per month to the user. This fee will most definitely stunt any hyper growth of their social network. Android, Palm, and Blackberry all support background processes for location announcing, but the social location apps on those platforms all have another problem: see below.
The second element that's critical to a friend-finder's success is the cost of building a social network. With 100 million MySpace users and 300 million Facebook users, most people simply won't recreate their friend network just for a mobile app. Virtually every friend-finding application gets hit by this Catch-22: Why would I join this application if none of my friends are on it yet?
I'm not sure why Facebook's iPhone application doesn't have an option to announce my location. I suspect they're coy for privacy reasons and would much rather see startups tackle this first and work out the kinks. Google's FriendConnect and Latitude are attempting it, but there has been no user adoption. People just don't define their friend relationships through Google.
A New Breed of App
I've been testing a pre-launch version of the new iPhone app called Stalqer which appears to have nailed both problems. The first breakthrough they've made is to get background location updates working on the iPhone without breaking Apple's rules.
The second breakthrough is that Stalqer leverages my Facebook network so I can interact with all my friends straightaway. So, when one of my Stalqer Facebook friends comes within a few miles of me, it will announce this with a push notification. It's a very cool experience and it will be interesting to see the market response after its launch this week.
While parts of the location-based application market are rapidly maturing, friend-finders have yet to become widespread. It seems inevitable that they will bring with them changes in social behavior and privacy issues, just as Facebook and Twitter changed the nature of social interaction.
For a comparison of the different friend-finding social apps see http://blog.5thfinger.com.