How a Geek Answers "Where You At?"

I got Andrew an iPhone for his birthday (read about it here) for a few reasons: 1. He's a great guy (in fact, he's the best!) and deserves to be spoiled 2. I knew he wanted one and 3. I wanted someone to play iPhone geek with.

Since we're currently living in different states, Andrew has been kind enough to undertake the crazy 2 hour 45 minute trip to Philadelphia to come see me. We usually meet after I get out of work but sometimes our timing is off and his train arrives late. If you've ever tried to coordinate where to meet with someone as you're both walking then you know our dilemma. "Where are you? By the what? Which statue? Ok, I'll meet you at 15th and Chestnut...oh you're at 17th? Ok, I'll meet you at 17th and market...You're already at the building?"

Thankfully, with a set of iPhones and a healthy dosage of geek, Andrew and I no longer have to describe where we are through a wonky series of labels like, "I just passed the Starbucks with the lady who was feeding her dog a blueberry scone with a bib on, no not the one where the guy was in the bathroom for 3 hours, the other one..."

So, to reduce the time spent wandering and rambling about scones, we tested three free location sharing apps for the iPhone; our reviews follow:

Google Latitude

So far away!

Google Latitude is a web-based program (like Gmail or Google Reader) that let's you sync your location on a Google Map. You can share that location with contacts you've approved and see the location of contacts who either set their status to public or send you an invitation.

Pros: Since it is part of the Google family, there's not a lot of set up involved. It uses your buddy icon from Gmail, gives you access to all your contacts and works with other Google products like Talk and your Google Profile. You can set it so that your chat contacts can see your location (it will be set as your status) and also have your Google Profile reflect changes in your location as well (these changes will only be visible to your contacts, which cuts down on the creepy stalker situation greatly). The integration could be smoother though, as with any Google product, finding the features is the hardest part.

Cons: Because this isn't a full-blown application for the iPhone, you'll have to set up a bookmark on the home screen to This means that every time you want to broadcast your location, you'll open a new window of Safari. The windows can pile up if you're not diligent in closing them. As mentioned, there is backward integration with other Google products, such as Talk and Profiles. However, in the case of Google Talk, the page to enable the features is more than a little bit buried, and somewhat confusing:

It took a few readings of the Tip! portion to really gather what they're instructing me to do. If I'm understanding it properly, by enabling the location status feature, my status will be automatically updated with my current location. However, if I set a custom status, and wish to switch back, I have to update my status with "loc:on". I get it, I think. The biggest con though, is that the location is far from reliable. We found the location was at least 2 blocks off. In a small town this may be acceptable, but in a city, 2 blocks is the difference between enjoying an iced Americano together and finding yourself tangled in a bum's kitchen.  Also a somewhat annoying aspect of Latitude is the fact that while it is a web-based application, you can't actually just view it on your laptop or desktop computer in a browser. You only have the choice of checking your friends locations on your phone, or via your iGoogle page, through their widget. 

Wish It Had: The ability to place your location on a custom Google Map so you could add your own markers like "The Really Dirty Dunkin Donuts" and know where to avoid. And of course, more accurate maps. And while we're being demanding, it'd be nice to have a way to nudge your friends to update their status and the ability to list your location as a set of cross-streets instead of just City, State. Furthermore, embedding the location update code throughout Google's suite of mobile products would be a worthwhile addition, especially for iPhone users, who lack the ability to run Latitude in the background. I use Google Maps, Reader, and Mail for my domain pretty regularly, and would imagine there would never be more than an hour or two between my location updates if Latitude was rolled in to them. This could be opt-in, of course, to minimize privacy concerns. 


Loopt status updates display your buddy icon, a custom tweet-like message, a picture you either take or upload and the cross-street of your location

We both really wish we liked Loopt. It has a great interface, and some interesting social networking features, like the ability to sync your location updates with Facebook and Twitter (because really, don't all your friends need to know where you are all the time?). You can create a Journal where you upload pictures and write small twitter like status updates that are linked to your location. Think Twitpic, but with your location. There is also a Mix feature which we didn't test as we're both incredibly anti-social and have no interest in finding anyone but each other (and ourselves...cue sappy music).

Andrew's Loopt Journal

Pros: Loopt uses Microsoft's Virtual Earth and with great results. At worst, it was one block off. Even better, it gives you a pin point location on the map as well as the cross-streets. This is incredibly useful when navigating a city. You can also use GPS to get directions to where one of your friends is. But the strange thing is that it opens up the Google Map's app to give you the directions. This seems strange, since Microsoft's Virtual Earth actually appears to interact with the iPhone's GPS much more accurately. While the directions via Google Maps utilize the positioning of both you and your friend as seen on Microsoft Virtual Earth, the transition is disconcerting to those who have accuracy issues with Google Maps.

Loopt opens the Google Maps app to give you directions to your contact

Cons: The Ping feature looks like it would be cool, but ends up being the killer for this almost-killer app. Basically, you "ping" a contact to request a location update from them. They get a text message from a funky phone number with a rambling message that tells them to load Loopt. 

The text message includes the person's phone number and location which is helpful, but makes you load Loopt yourself

They then have to open Loopt and update their location in order for you to see it. You then get a pong text message of where they are. If you need to see this on a map, you'll have to exit your messages and load Loopt. It is extremely frustrating and subsequently why we don't use Loopt anymore.  

¿ lame ?

Wish It Had: Fewer Twitter clone features and more of a focus on making pings and pongs a smooth interaction. Seriously, Loopt, you'd  be our boy wonder if you just fixed that silly Ping feature!


A typical HeyWAY status update, shows the contact's name on top along with the timestamp for the location

HeyWAY is app with the least amount of pomp and circumstance, but it's our app of choice. Why? Because the folks at HeyWAY keep it simple. No social aspect, besides adding contacts (which is done by setting up an account with heyWAY, it uses Google Maps with acceptable accuracy and it has an easy and (most importantly) functioning location request feature.

Easy breezy beautiful

Pros: The best part about this app is the location update alert. With three graceful swipes of your touchscreen, you can select a contact to request an update from. A pop up appears indicating that you'd like them to update their location, and you get back a pop up that they've updated. The pop ups include links to open HeyWAY, making it very easy to send and receive status information. 

You can also send your location to someone else, which is even more streamlined. You send them your location, they get a notification and by clicking on the notification it loads HeyWAY and jumps them right to your location on a map. 

Cons: Since it is a free app, there are ads every so often. Which is understandable but distracting on the map page. I really can't tell if those lines are straight or not and it's hot out, I just stepped in gum and I'm trying to find my boyfriend. Can't they be on the home screen?

Wish It Had:
 The ability to use customized Google Maps, cross-street location updates and maybe some of the cool social features of Loopt. But don't change too much HeyWAY, we like you even without all those bells and whistles.

Bottom Line: If you're part of a dynamic anti-social long-distance iPhone-loving duo, HeyWAY just might be the app for you. Otherwise, Loopt and Latitude have some great features and are worth a shot! Remember, these apps get their value from being used by others, so make sure that if your friends are all on Latitude you're not pinging them from Loopt.

Have other apps you think we should test drive? Let us know! 

This article wouldn't be possible without my partner in crime Andrew. Check out his blog for more interesting tech tips and sarcastic quips! 


Colin said...

Wait.... 2 hours 45 minutes?

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