Facebook is developing a standalone application to help users find their friends in real life, according to a new report, marking the company's entry into a field that has plenty of competitors but has yet to yield a mainstream success.
Bloomberg reports that the app, which so far does not have a name, is expected to be released next month in time for South by Southwest. The app would track your location in the background, even when it hadn't been recently opened, and share that location with nearby friends.
Facebook has not responded to a request for comment.
In its broad details the new project resembles apps like Foursquare, Highlight, Google's Latitude, and Apple's Find My Friends. At their best, the apps help friends find one another when they aren't even looking. At their worst, they're a privacy minefield and a battery drain.
But to date, none of the apps has gained mass adoption. In part, that's because they suffer from network effects -- not enough people have joined to make them truly useful, which makes it harder for them to attract more users. Facebook, with more than 1 billion users in its network, could have the best chance yet to make an app like this work.
It's noteworthy that the company is pursuing location tracking as a standalone app and not a new feature -- say, in the Nearby feature that it launched not long ago to help users find interesting locations around them. But Facebook has good reason to proceed cautiously with introducing a feature like this into its main app, which is used by hundreds of millions of people. Given the obvious privacy concerns, it may be smarter to test the feature in an app that users explicitly opt into by downloading it.
If it's adopted broadly, though, the app could be a data goldmine. As Bloomberg notes, Facebook could use data gleaned from the app to sell ads based not just on users' current locations but also on their daily routines. That alone makes it an idea worth pursuing -- but alongside Facebook's mobile app, not inside it. At least for now.