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Crave Talk: Location, location, location

Want to meet friends of friends who live nearby, or find out your geographic location without using GPS? Check out some of the latest location-based systems that let you do this, and more...

Know your place? Companies have been trying for a while to sell us location-based systems -- a combination of a portable device that knows where you are and a service that tells you something useful as a result.

The trouble with location-based systems to date is that they've been one big yawnathon. I've taken part in countless demos where I've walked through shopping centres in San Francisco, Stockholm or Swindon, peering at the PDA I've been given, which beeps self-importantly when I'm next door to a shop with a sale on. It might have been more impressive, if the shop in question didn't also have sale posters emblazoned across the window, which were visible from 50 yards away.

Admittedly I didn't see the posters, but only because I was so intent on watching the map unfurl on my pocket computer. And the only reason these demos are always in San Francisco, Stockholm or Swindon is because the population in those places is polite enough not to attack you for walking into them.

Other unimpressive demonstrations have included an Intel Labs talk where they pinpointed me within a couple of feet by triangulating my laptop from a network of Wi-Fi office gateways. This would be incredibly useful if I were in the habit of getting lost between my desk and the kitchen. But so far, despite advancing years and various office reorganisations, I've held onto that much mental competence -- when I do finally lose it that badly (on current trends, sometime in mid-September) I'll be too busy emptying out the drool tray on my Inspiron to worry.

Now though, location-based systems seem to have found their place. Like all new ideas, they went through five stages -- initial excitement; a long cynical pause when everyone realises it doesn't work and even if it did, it wouldn't be any use; a burst of excitement when Google buys in; another long cynical pause while everyone wonders if Google's finally shaved the poodle; and -- finally -- launch.  And then everyone's doing it.

Take Dodgeball. This company does social networking by mobile phone -- and no, it's not just phoning your mates up. It launched with media interest in 2003. It got forgotten about. It got bought by Google in 2005. It got forgotten about again. Now it's starting to register on the radar again, if only for its popularity among hip young nerds called Zaf who would rather run their social lives through an SQL database than actually, y'know, talk to each other.

I'm just jealous because I'm not hip or young. Dodgeball's actually quite neat. Hit town, hit Al's Bar, send a text message to Dodgeball, it relays this to all your pals in the area and they converge. Or you converge on them. Or whatever. It has an advantage over most social networks, allowing you to only put actual friends on your list. Do you want Billy No-Mates from Accounts to share his Sealed Knot re-enactment tales with you? No? Then for heaven's sake, keep him off your Dodgeball list. That makes the list genuinely valuable, because it reflects the true relationships -- something that any advertiser would sell their gran for.

Then there's Mologogo, who mailed me last week to say hello. This is so Web 2.0, it hurts. It uses Google Maps and sat-nav in a 'mash-up'. The founders call themselves Lemonhead and Gravitymonkey. They use the word 'goodness' as a noun. If you run their free software on your GPS-enabled phone, you show up on a map and... err, that's it! What you do with it is up to you -- most recently, one of the developers left his phone in a cab by mistake and watched where it went, before getting it back. That's the sort of application that justifies any amount of nounish goodness.

You can also go and look at Trisent, a Scottish company that tracks ordinary phones. For around £15 a month it lets companies keep track of where their workers are. If it can find the chap who was supposed to finish my bathroom two months ago, I'll write them a Google Maps interface myself.

All this activity -- and much more -- tells me that location-based services are finally here. Not because big companies are flogging their sclerotic ideas through established networks, but because people are working out how to use the technology for themselves. Even that Intel Wi-Fi-based idea is starting to make sense, when you mix it up with Wigle -- a public worldwide database of hotspots and their precise locations, built by ordinary people wandering around with laptops. This means that you can work out where you are, by seeing what wireless networks are available from your laptop. This bypasses the main problem with location-based services -- the fact that networks want to charge a fortune for passing this data around. Let them -- we know their place too, and it's in the history books.  See you at Al's Bar? -Rupert Goodwins