November 14, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Mobile phones that track your buddies
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"For the young people we're targeting, being with their friends is the most important thing," said Loopt's Altman. "And they are very willing to share their location so that they don't miss out on anything."
Offering services based on a subscriber's location is not a new concept. But up until recently, most of the services offered have required users to type in an address or ZIP code to either broadcast their location, find local businesses or get directions.
"The fact that many of these services haven't been automated has inhibited adoption," said IDG's Ellison. "If you're driving through a neighborhood and you want to find the closest movie theatre, you might not know the ZIP code."
Now, companies like Loopt are working directly with mobile operators, which under mandate from the Federal Communications Commission must embed technology in phones to track their location in case of an emergency. Compliance with these requirements has taken a long time to implement. And for the most part, the technology used by most operators is rudimentary at best.
"Carriers implementing E911 are only required to provide location information within about 100 meters," said Iain Gillott, founder of iGillottResearch. "That's a big area, when you think of a densely populated urban area. The joke with E911 services has been that if you're in a downtown area and you call for help from a cell phone, you'd better light a fire in the middle of the street to let the emergency crew know exactly where you are."
But the technology is improving. And many services, like Boost Loopt and Helio, now use GPS technology to more accurately calculate a cell phone user's coordinates to within a few yards, using satellite signals.
Still, mobile operators are treading lightly into this tracking tech. Verizon offers its VZ Navigator service, which provides directions and mapping, but it has not yet launched a full-blown buddy-tracking service.
Instead, it offers a very targeted cell phone-tracking service called "Chaperone" that allows parents to keep tabs on their kids. To help ensure that the service isn't abused, Verizon has implemented strict parameters: It's offered only in conjunction with the LG Migo phone designed for 7- to 10-year-olds. And the service can be added only to an existing family calling plan.
"We are really interested in the whole social-networking experience and the extensions that mobility offers those applications," Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said. "But we are concerned about privacy and security, especially when designing a service that deals with children."
Loopt executives claim that they have developed safeguards to ensure that mobile-phone users are tracked only by people they know and only when they want to be found. For example, the first time a subscriber tries to track a phone, a phone number must be used, and a text message is sent to the owner of that phone, who must reply in order to enable tracking. Loopt also offers individual-by-individual privacy settings so that users can "hide" from specific individuals and literally drop off of their map.
Of course, there are ways around security safeguards. And it's these details that worry operators such as Verizon Wireless.
"We have a lot of concerns about making sure a tracking service is done right," Nelson said. "The last thing we want to do is let a genie out of a bottle and find that the service is misused."
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