Glympse of a Stealthy Startup: Ex-Microsofties Roll Out Location-Based Mobile Service

5/19/09Follow @gthuang

Tired of hearing your airline seatmates blab on their cellphones just to tell people “I’m on the plane,” or “I’ve just landed”? Sick of texting “Where are you?” when you’re trying to meet up with friends, or when a family member is stuck in traffic? Then Bryan Trussel, an ex-Microsoft veteran turned entrepreneur, has a service for you.

It’s called Glympse, and it debuts today as a downloadable application on T-Mobile G1 phones with the Google Android operating system—with iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile versions to come soon. The mobile software lets you share your location automatically with whoever you want (as long as they have Internet access on their phone or laptop), for however long you want. You click on an e-mail or phone number in your contact list, and that person can then click on a URL to open up a dynamic map that traces your location in real-time and gives your speed and estimated arrival time, if you specify a destination. The person on the receiving end does not need to sign up for Glympse (though the service is enhanced if they do), and can view the map on their phone, laptop, or desktop.

Trussel, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, says Glympse is meant to help business associates and acquaintances meet up, as well as friends and families—so it has a potentially huge user base. Not surprisingly, the location-based services field is pretty crowded, with competition from big players like Google Latitude and overlap with location-aware startups like Seattle-based Pelago (maker of Whrrl), Silicon Valley-based Loopt and Brightkite, and Boston-based uLocate. But Janis Machala of UW Tech Transfer, who watches the mobile space, says Glympse is “much more user-friendly” than its closest competitors.

I’ve talked with Trussel at length a couple of times in the past few months, while his Redmond, WA-based startup has been in stealth mode. Trussel previously spent 16 years at Microsoft, working on everything from the Windows operating system to interactive TV to casual games. He was most recently the manager of Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft’s game distribution network that is popular among gamers and developers alike. He left in March 2008 and decided to start a company with two other Microsoft friends, Steve Miller and Jeremy Mercer.

“We wanted to take advantage of something we saw as an integration point of a lot of new things: smarter cellphones, GPS technology, and flat-rate data plans,” Trussel told me. What this seemed to open up was “location sharing between cellphones—something we see being ubiquitous,” he said.

At first, people laughed at their goal. Their primary competition was text messaging and phone calls, after all, and who’s going to stop texting or calling? Also, the Glympse team didn’t have much direct experience in the mobile space. (Perhaps to make up for this, Trussel says he owns six different phones.) “People were saying you can’t do a consumer mobile app without deep carrier relationships,” Trussel says. “It used to be that carriers were the only distribution channel.” But now there are ways around the carriers; Trussel cites the immense popularity of the Apple iTunes App Store ( “it’s not AT&T, it’s Apple,” he says) and the Android Market.

After raising seed funding from angel investors last year, Trussel and his team focused on building the technology, user experience, and the “polish of the design,” he says. Glympse’s technology uses a combination of GPS, Wi-Fi, and cell tower triangulation to get a fast fix on where you are. Unlike other location-based mobile services, the user interface requires no login or password to get set up, and doesn’t require you to send out friend invites, or integrate your location information into a social network. (The latter is a complementary distribution strategy, but one that Glympse is purposefully avoiding— “Who needs another social network?” Trussel asks.) The simplicity of his software’s design and ease of use, Trussel says, “is where you can take on a big company if you have a laser focus.”

In particular, what differentiates Glympse from Google Latitude is that with the former, you don’t have to set up an account or “install” your friends in any network. What’s more, you get a real-time updated map showing your location, instead of a periodically updated, static map view. It’s not immediately clear how important these factors will be for consumers, but time will tell. In the meantime, Trussel says, Google has validated the market at a high level, and seems to be pursuing the social network angle.

Trussel learned a lot from casual games, and it has clearly influenced Glympse’s business strategy. In mass consumer markets, he says, “You should always give them something free, and then ask them to download. If you present it to them in the right way, you can convince a mass market to adopt.” (Key success stories would be the Nintendo Wii and iPhone apps, for example.) So the plan for Glympse is to provide a basic service for free, build an audience, and then work up to paid models and location-based advertising. “Let’s get viral distribution out there, let’s get this distributed from person to person,” he says.

On the privacy front, Trussel emphasizes that you can set a specific window of time (15 minutes to four hours) during which only the users you select can track your location. And not having to log in makes it less likely that your personal whereabouts will fall into the wrong hands.

Glympse has six full-time employees (the three founders and three developers), plus a few overseas workers in China and Belarus. “It’s been fun and personally satisfying,” Trussel says. “I’ve learned a ton.” Specifically, he says, “you have to grow at the right rate” and avoid distractions like extra features or partnerships that are not central to the startup’s goal. Second, he says, “the marketplace is changing and evolving. You have to read those tea leaves and see how people are using this.”

That’s where Glympse seems to have a chance to do something special. Besides helping us all enjoy some peace and quiet on the taxiways, the service could become something we all have to have on our phones in order to survive, and thrive, in an increasingly connected world.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.