Review: Google Latitude puts phones in their place

Google's new location tool lets you follow your phone-toting contacts around the globe.

With a company, family and an active social life, it's hard to keep up with where my family, friends and employees are at any point in time. So when I heard about Google's new Latitude location tool, I had to try it out.

As you probably know by now, Latitude ingeniously figures out where your contacts are based on the closest cell phone tower, even if they're not on a call. It works in most of the U.S and in 27 other countries -- though as soon as you're in a rural area that doesn't have phone coverage, you can't be found. Also, it's accurate only to within about half a mile.

I started by getting a bunch of friends and family members to download and install Version 2.3.2 of Google Maps onto their phones -- it's only 415KB, so it won't fill up your phone's memory. (Google recommends using Version 3.0 because it launched Latitude as a feature of this version.) To make it work, everyone connected to Latitude needs to have a Google Account, which has to be set to allow their phones to be associated with their profiles and tracked.

At the moment, the software supports most recent BlackBerries, some Android-powered phones, and Symbian S60 and Windows Mobile 5.0-based devices. Google is planning on adding Apple iPhones and some Sony Ericsson devices soon. You can also install Latitude on your desktop iGoogle page.

For those afraid of Big Brother snooping on their activities, Latitude has different levels of privacy. You can choose to let it show exactly where you are, display what Google calls "city level location sharing," hide where you are from the system altogether, or set a location, whether you're actually there or not. For awhile, I set my position to Hawaii (wishful thinking on an 18-degree day).

Latitude's maps show a person's location with the photo used in his Google account or a blank headshot. It updates locations as people move around; watching the heads move around on the map was almost hypnotic -- it diverted me from more fruitful pursuits for more than an hour.

At one point, I was watching the whereabouts of four phones in two states, and I zoomed out on the map so much that I couldn't really follow their progress -- it showed my wife in Greenwich when she was actually in Stamford, and my son looked like he was in Ardsley when he was actually in Dobbs Ferry.

According to Google, Latitude shows locations within an area between 800 and 1,800 meters, which translates to a distance of between four-tenths and three-fourths of a mile. It's essentially a circle with that distance as a radius; the person could be anywhere in that circle. By contrast, GPS has an accuracy of about 10 meters.

Google Latitude

Google Latitude

On the whole, though, Latitude worked so well that I was able to see when my wife left work for home, when my son arrived at school, and where my company car (with an employee at the wheel) was. It even helped track down a phone that was left at school. It's reassuring to know that everyone was roughly where they were supposed to be, and Latitude lets you send an e-mail or text message to each.

As good as Latitude is, it's clearly a first-generation program that has a few quirks. The biggest problem, however, is that it can neither send a confirming e-mail when a participant arrives at a set location nor alert you when someone strays out of a predetermined area. Both are essential features for software that is meant to keep tabs on people. (And of course, your contacts can simply forget their phones, removing themselves from active tracking.)

Using cell phone towers isn't nearly as precise as GPS, but I really like Google Maps' directions and its ability to find ATMs and even suggest a restaurant.

Be aware that for those not on an unlimited data plan, using Latitude will incur a data charge. At about 30KB per location fix, it's not a horrendous load, but it will add up.

The best part is that Latitude fits into your iGoogle page, so alongside the weather, a virtual aquarium and the quote of the day, I now know the location of my friends, family and co-workers. That is, unless they're in "Hawaii."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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