ULocate’s “Buddy Beacon” Spreads to More Phones; Wherever You Go, Your Friends Will Know

2/14/08Follow @wroush

ULocate’s Dan Gilmartin hinted last week that we should be on the lookout for another announcement about Buddy Beacon, the mobile-phone-based friend-finding service that uLocate built for, and recently bought back from, L.A.-based Helio. The announcement came yesterday, and the substance of it was predictable, given uLocate’s other recent announcement that its Where platform for location-based widgets was spreading to a wider variety of cellular networks: Buddy Beacon is now available to customers of Sprint, MetroPCS, and Alltel Wireless, as well as Helio.

Long one of the most buzzworthy features of Helio phones, Buddy Beacon is a bit of software that allows users to send updates displaying their current location on the phones of selected friends. In a new twist, the location information also shows up instantly on users’ Facebook profiles and in their Twitter feeds, if they select those options.

Graphical friend finders have been a popular feature of mobile phones in South Korea for years, but Helio was the first major carrier to implement the service in North America. ULocate’s move to make it available over more cellular networks promises to give millions of people a new way to find and meet with (or simply feel more connected to) one another—and could help make the Boston-based company into something much closer to a household name.

“From the Buddy Beacon application on my Sprint phone, I can post an update about my current status,” Gilmartin explained to me last week. “Say I’m at work, and talking to Wade. That status update would be automatically tagged with my location, and it would go into our location clearinghouse. Then the information is disseminated out through various networks to the friends and the applications I’ve approved.”

ULocate’s location clearinghouse is what makes the new Buddy Beacon into something far more interesting and powerful than the original Helio service. Web geeks will understand instantly if I say “It’s like Twitter with maps for phones.” For everyone else: basically, uLocate has done all the messy back-end programming needed to tie location-aware mobile devices (essentially, any phone with a GPS chip that’s accessible to third-party software) together with several disparate social-media environments, including Facebook (the massively popular social-networking service where every profile begins with a status message), Twitter (the hot micro-blogging service that allows users to send out short SMS or instant-messaging updates to “followers” about what they’re doing) and standard SMS text messaging.

It works in all directions: Whether you update your location from Facebook or from your phone, both your Buddy Beacon buddies and your Facebook friends will see your latest location (the former via their phones, the latter using Buddy Beacon Facebook app’s map).

The Buddy Beacon interface on the Apple iPhoneULocate is in the process of helping iPhone owners tap into the whole system. Technically, Buddy Beacon launched on the iPhone yesterday, along with the versions for Sprint, MetroPCS, and Alltell subscribers, but the service wasn’t quite ready for prime time. In fact, I was one of uLocate’s guinea pigs, leaving frequent updates on Gilmartin’s voicemail about my progress getting the application to work on my iPhone (sorry Dan!).

The problem is that, because Apple hasn’t yet opened up access to the iPhone to third-party developers, anyone who wants to make an application work on the iPhone has to do it through the phone’s built-in Safari Web browser. This is much easier said than done, and as of yesterday, functions such as setting one’s location (which must be done manually, since the iPhone’s location-finding feature can’t be accessed from the browser) weren’t quite working.

Gilmartin says—and I fully expect—that the experience of using Buddy Beacon on an iPhone will drastically improve once Apple releases the long-awaited software developers’ kit for the iPhone, which it has promised to do this month. Then uLocate will be able to publish Buddy Beacon as a native iPhone application that taps directly into the device’s location-finding system (which, as I reported last month, depends in part on a WiFi-based system developed by local startup Skyhook Wireless).

What’s really happening here—at least, as soon as the bugs get worked out—is that uLocate is taking us one step closer to a world in which our current location is just one more piece of pseudo-public information about us. It’s important to note that Buddy Beacon isn’t a GPS tracker; it and your buddies only know where you are if you tell it to send out an update. But just as your friends and family feel it’s within their rights to call you day or night once you’ve given them your cell phone number, the people you invite to be your Buddy Beacon buddies will probably expect you to post regular status updates so they can see whether you’re at work, or vegging at home, or doing something cool enough (like barhopping or going to the movies) that they might actually want to join you.

Some people may feel uncomfortable with that level of exposure. That’s okay—no one is forcing them to update their Buddy Beacon status. But I suspect that among some crowds, going off-map will quickly come to be seen as a form of anti-social behavior, akin to turning off one’s cell phone. Ready or not, here comes the era of total location awareness.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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