PALO ALTO, Calif.--Facebook users are about to get a better idea of where their friends are.
At an invite-only press event at the company's headquarters here, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new service called "Places" that will let users share their location with one another and more easily discover what's around them from within the social network.
The feature, which CNET caught wind of ahead of its launch, will begin rolling out to users on Thursday, and centers around mobile devices, which Facebook members can use to send their location to Facebook the same way they'd post an update. Included are privacy controls that let users choose who can see it, which by default will be set to friends only.
Along with telling people where you are, users will be able to include who they're with--that is, as long as they're all friends on Facebook. This information gets pushed out along with the Facebook update and uses the same tagging system that Facebook employs for its photo-hosting service.
Once it's been made, a place becomes a permanent part of Facebook, though it can be deleted by whomever made it in the first place. In the case of businesses, business owners will be able to claim it, though during the briefing Zuckerberg did not go into details about whether that granted any administrative controls.
Facebook product manager Michael Sharon, who demoed the new service to the audience, said the company is updating its mobile Web service to accommodate the feature, as well as rolling out a completely new version of its iPhone app late Wednesday.
Sharon pointed out that the real potential for Places centered around it being available not just through Facebook's sites and apps but through third-party applications too. Sharon explained that Facebook would be offering developers full read, write, and search of locations through an API, though not just yet.
Facebook is currently working with a small group of developers including Yelp, Foursquare, Gowalla, and Booyah (all of which were in attendance) to build Places check-ins into their own services before offering it out to everyone. For something like Yelp, this means that when a user checks in to that service through the Yelp app, or Yelp's site on their phone, they'll also be able to push that information out to Facebook. The same goes for Foursquare and the others.
Notably missing from Places, at least from the get-go, is any integration with large businesses. A report back in May by AdAge, had pegged McDonalds as one of the possible launch partners. During a Q&A session following the event, Zuckerberg simply said that the company wanted to get it out the door before thinking about things like that. "For this first launch we wanted to make three important use cases including having a good API on top of that," he said.
Facbook VP of product Chris Cox closed up the presentation by pointing at urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg's take that there were only three places that mattered to people: work, home, and public places, but that technology was killing the last one. "A secret about Facebook employees, is that we're all closet sociologists," he said. Cox went on to say that with Places, the company is hoping that they had created a technology to negate these effects.
For more analysis on the news, read my colleague Caroline McCarthy's take on how Facebook just made itself the way to check-in online. Also, for kicks, here's a video of Facebook Places check-ins popping up on a U.S. map that the company had playing directly following the presentation. Keep in mind this won't be a public-facing feature once Places goes live: