Sunday, July 26, 2009

Google Latitude now available for iPhone—via the web

Google has finally released a version of its Latitude geo-location service for the iPhone. However, Apple forced encouraged Google to abandon its native iPhone app, citing possible confusion with the default Maps app. Even though Google was able to develop a nice looking web-app alternative, the result leaves much to be desired.

The basic gist of Latitude is similar in some respects to BrightKite—fire up the app and it sends your GPS coordinates to Google. It also lets you view a map showing the coordinates of all your friends, wherever they might be located. If you're trying to meet up with friends on a Friday night, for instance, it makes finding them much easier. Like BrightKite, users can control who can see the location information and just how accurate it is—helpful for avoiding awkward confrontations with that stalker-y blind date from last week.

Google makes native clients for Android, Blackberry, Symbian and Windows Mobile platforms, but Apple apparently wasn't having any of that on the iPhone. "We worked closely with Apple to bring Latitude to the iPhone in a way Apple thought would be best for iPhone users," wrote Mat Balez, Product Manager with the Google Mobile Team. "After we developed a Latitude application for the iPhone, Apple requested we release Latitude as a web application in order to avoid confusion with Maps on the iPhone, which uses Google to serve maps tiles."

Luckily, Mobile Safari supports the W3C Geolocation API, and ties it in with iPhone OS's Core Location, so it makes a web-based Latitude possible. One annoying side effect, though, is that you have to keep approving Safari to use Core Location whenever you load a website using the Geolocation API. And, despite the iPhone-optimized delivery, I found the Latitude web app performance to be less than stellar. Unlike other mobile platforms, Apple also doesn't offer a way for third-party apps—and this extends to web apps—to run in the background, which prevents Latitude from updating your GPS coordinates if you fire up another app. It will continue to broadcast your location, on the other hand, as long as it is the currently active tab in Mobile Safari.

With so many limitations, though, Latitude doesn't quite achieve the set-it-and-forget-it ease that makes most such apps handy. You can use it to check and see if any friends are nearby, but if those friends are using an iPhone, you're only liable to see the location where they last remembered to load Latitude. Overall, the concept is interesting, and has the potential to be useful and fun. Ultimately, the iPhone version simply doesn't quite deliver the full Latitude experience.


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