Google Latitude is an island unto itself, using Google's own technology for cell phone-based location detection and for managing who gets access to your location. Friends on Fire, though, stitches together a variety of services: Yahoo's Fire Eagle, a service that can store and share your location with authorized applications, and Facebook, which handles the issue of identifying who your friends are and granting them permission to see your location.
The service is intriguing, though as with any service that has to tiptoe carefully around a lot of privacy landmines, it can be somewhat burdensome to set up. It's great that Yahoo is making something real out of its Fire Eagle service, which previously was more about plumbing than a faucet.
Fire Eagle is an intermediary. It relies on other services to tell it where you are and on other services to do something useful with that location data; only services you specifically authorize may do anything at all with Fire Eagle.
"There are services that are more immediate than Fire Eagle, but as we get more apps, the value of updating once and having it shared across all your services is more important," said Fire Eagle leader Tom Coates in an interview just before he headed to the SXSW conference to announce the new technology.
At the same time Yahoo is releasing Friends on Fire to consume Fire Eagle location data, it's also releasing a Firefox plug-in to update Fire Eagle with your location through the browser. The plug-in, which uses Firefox's Geode plug-in to actually determine your location based on nearby wireless networks and other data, adds a toolbar button that lets you tell Fire Eagle where you are. You have to specifically enable Fire Eagle to accept data from the plug-in, just as you have to authorize Fire Eagle to share data with Friends on Fire.
Mobile Friends on Fire?
One big advantage Google Latitude has over Friends on Fire is that it works on mobile phones. For what seems to be everybody's favorite example of such services--meeting your friends at the bar--it's hardly convenient to lug around a laptop and hope you can find a wireless network to use Friends on Fire.
Coates said Yahoo is working on a mobile version, though.
"We are interested in a mobile site, though we aren't launching any mobile aspect," he said. "We are looking into mobile stuff for Friends on Fire."
Google Latitude raised hackles among those worried the company already knows too much about people or that it might enable covert tracking. Friends on Fire has similar issues, but as with Google, Yahoo is trying to be overt about what's shared.
When you activate the application, you first have to authorize Fire Eagle to share data with it. Next, you can set what level of detail you want to share--nothing, exact location, neighborhood, zip code, city, county, state, or country. It also lets you enable Friends on Fire to set your location.
Next, the Facebook application shows a list of your Facebook friends who already have Friends on Fire installed. Clicking each one turns their icon green to enable sharing.
I found the application workable but imperfect. It was hard to say whether the fault lay with Facebook, Fire Eagle, or something else, but there seemed to be long waiting periods sometimes before information that should have been available actually arrived. One friend of mine in the Boston area appeared at first to be somewhere on a fishing boat off the coast of Gloucester, but I think that was an artifact of him not sharing his precise location.
Also, I didn't care for the signals feature of Friends on Fire, which lets you drop a note on the map--"here's where we're meeting," for example. It sounds useful in theory, but I couldn't figure a way to respond to another person's signal. It would have been a good place to spawn a conversation, but the closest I could come to that was sending a message through Facebook to the person who wrote the signal.
Overall, though, location is important. There are many occasions in life where we have to know where our friends, co-workers, and relations actually are. It remains to be seen if online services will surmount the privacy challenges, but at least the work has begun.