Does location-based networking need some direction?

A panel at SXSWi offers the debate: make the likes of Loopt, Brightkite, and Whrrl interoperable to ensure a level playing field, or let the industry just shake itself out.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--There's Loopt, Brightkite, Whrrl, FourSquare, Rummble, uLocate, Google Latitude, Yahoo Fire Eagle, and goodness knows which other ones we haven't heard of yet. The location-based mobile networking space has been front and center at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival as hundreds of tech enthusiasts from around the country have been eager to find their friends and learn what's happening.

Perhaps it's fitting that in one of the festival's last panels on Tuesday afternoon, a handful of executives and high-level developers from the location-awareness space got together for a discussion called "Using GPS and Location to Enhance Social Networking." The big question: Do all these disparate services have to get interoperable?

Moderator Tom Marchioro, the location-based services architect at GPS navigation company Garmin, brought up an analogy to text messaging and Web-based IM, two early social-media technolgoies that took very different routes.

After years of carrier restriction, text messages "came up with a standard, and last year there were 1.9 trillion text messages sent worldwide, and it's a total cash cow," Marchioro said. "Internet messaging, 10 to 15 years after it was invented...is a bunch of independent networks and there's no monetization model. So that would argue that if we're going to have a bunch of location-based social networks, they might want to interoperate."

One panelist, Bryan Jones of Mobile Blast, brought up the OSLO Accord, a project raised at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which hopes to bring an OpenID-like standard to location sharing.

Not all the panelists seemed to be on board.

"We would love to be able to work with the other social networks out there, (but) some of the challenge with that is that your social graphs tend to be very different across different social networks," said Martin May, founder of Brightkite.

John Adams, from Twitter's operations team and who hinted that the microblogging service "hopes to have more services that are location-based in the future," said that it could be technically difficult as well. "Different services have different methods for identifying, storing, and locating different privacy data," he said. "With Brightkite, they have a much higher level of granularity around your location data...and it's very different to translate that between both systems."

There's really not a clear answer. And the entrance of two huge tech players into the space--Google's Latitude and Yahoo's Fire Eagle--has given location-based networking some validation. It's also possible that one of them will be the company to come up with the standard that will help level the playing field and allow different services to coexist much like cell carriers in the text-messaging space. Or, perhaps location-based networking will better mirror microblogging: a few years ago, there were several competing services like Pownce and Jaiku in addition to Twitter that are now either defunct or effectively afterthoughts.

One more thing on a slightly unrelated note: Adams did touch upon the "How is Twitter going to make money?" question. "We are looking at commercial accounts. We see a lot of potential in adding that service that (lets) you know you're talking to Shaq or that you know you're talking to a certain celebrity, and to weed out impersonation," he said, "without imposing fees on existing free services."

Breaking: Twitter to start selling "I'm Famous For Real" badges! Money problem solved!