Rory Cellan-Jones

Location, location, location

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 9 Jul 08, 08:56 GMT

You're walking along the street past a well-known clothes' store and a message on your mobile invites you in with the promise of a 20% discount. The "new-look you" emerges from the store and 20 yards down the street, your mobile tells you that it is happy hour at your favourite bar - you check and see that two of your mates are not far away - and , hey presto, you have an instant night out. Sounds familiar? Of course not, but that's the vision that has been promised both by the mobile operators and various digital visionaries for the last decade.

Location-based services have been the next big thing for a long time. Way back in 2001, BT Cellnet, as it was then before it became O2, lured me to the Isle of Man to see trials of the world's first 3g network. One of the things that got them really excited was driving us in a taxi past some windswept pub on a lonely road so that a screen inside the cab could light up with a message inviting us in for a pint.

But location-based services, like personal jet-packs and the internet fridge, are the future that didn't happen. Now, though, the idea is back in fashion - and I've been trying out something called Fire Eagle which promises to let you "share" your location with a whole range of sites and services.

It's a project that's emerged from a Yahoo lab. The idea is that you tell Fire Eagle where you are, and then all sorts of wonderful things happen - you can find your friends, display your location on your blog, receive information about local events, and instantly tag photos with the location where they were taken. According to Tom Coates, who's leading the project, "any service can be theoretically enhanced (either a small amount or a large amount) by being able to personalize itself to where you are while giving you unprecedented control over your data and privacy." He says that by geo-tagging all sorts of data - from blog posts to Twitter messages to people playing songs on - you can make that information much more useful to all concerned. And if your phone or your laptop knew where you were at any time, then you could receive personalised information about weather, traffic - just about anything.

That's the theory. In practice, I've found a couple of problems. I need to make the effort to update my location via Fire Eagle all the time - though as GPS comes to more phones that could happen automatically - and most of the time I just can't be bothered. And when I do, I'm still not sure why I want the world to know where I am.

So I've just told Fire Eagle that I am in Notting Hill Gate (not strictly true) - now what? Well my laptop is telling me what the weather is like, and has also revealed that there are no relevant photos nearby. A "nearby Wikipedia pages" application seems to be confused about my location and is telling me about Northfields tube station - which is actually near my home. I've tried using a couple of other services attached to Fire Eagle - but just downloading and signing up has tested my patience to the limits.

I think my main problem is the lack of a network effect - until there are plenty of location-based services and plenty of people are using them, the whole idea just won't have any mass appeal. And I'm still worried that it's a concept which may appeal more to advertisers and technology developers than to users - there does not seem to be any real "need" waiting to be fulfilled.

So I remain to be convinced that location, location, location is going to be quite as important as its boosters claim. But I could be wrong. As I was completing this post, I went on Twitter to say: "struggling to work out why i want my phone to know where I am... eg why location-based services?"

There was a noisy chorus of tweets in reply - not just from Tom Coates, who pointed out that Fire Eagle hadn't even launched yet, and there would be plenty of very useful applications when it did. All the tweeters were amazed that I didn't get it: "marrying content produced on your phone to location awareness is *clearly* valuable and useful", "even mundane tasks like finding your local cinema from a drop-down menu are made unnecessary", "nearby gigs that match tastes? Facebook friends who may be in town and you not knowing? Just a couple of examples."

Well, perhaps the Twitter and Facebook generation, always out and about looking for the nearest gig, are crying out for location-based services. And if they are, there will be plenty to choose from very soon.


  • Comment number 1.

    check out - best app i've seen with fire eagle

  • Comment number 2.

    'by being able to personalize itself to where you are while giving you unprecedented control over your data and privacy'

    How so? You're telling a multinational corporation and all its advertisers exactly where you are.

    It seems we've heard this argument before recently. Enhance your privacy by giving it away for free.

  • Comment number 3.

    I can see lots of interesting uses for location based services, and I'd say that within a couple of years they'll be common, and perhaps even the Next Big Thing.

    That said, imagine the data that will be stored on Yahoo!'s (or whoever's) servers. They could create a complete profile of where you travel - who you visit, what shops you go to etc. The police would love this data, as would advertisers. This might make people more aware of privacy than anything else...

  • Comment number 4.

    It's not about telling [Advertisers|Corporations|Shops] where you are. It's about *knowing* where you are. From there, you can choose to see bars and gigs. Or maybe just a good restaurant.

    Invaluable if you're in an unfamiliar city and you want to see a friendly face or go to a "known good" venue.

  • Comment number 5.

    as long as it's all anonymous then it should be ok

  • Comment number 6.

    Rory: I'm surprised you didn't mention 'Brightkite' (see: ) - this site has become very popular among the geek crowd on Twitter since it launched some months ago (which Tom must've noticed as well) and really could have been the catalyst for Fire Eagle's introduction at the moment. Personally, I suspect Brits might raise more questions about privacy than the Americans (in a similar way that Google Streetview has come under fire a bit).

  • Comment number 7.

    Doesn't O2 already provide a Location Info service, directing the user to various local amenities?

  • Comment number 8.

    I can already use the GPS and map facilities on my Nokia N95 to find the nearest (though sadly not necessarily the cheapest) petrol station when I'm away from home, but recently, when I had a flat tyre while on holiday, I had to phone KwikFit to ask a human operator for the location of their nearest store. It would have been much better if I could have just used passed my location from my GPS application to the KwikFit website, to find their nearest outlet.

    Likewise, I can report potholes etc. to many councils by telling them the relevant postcode (but, away from home, I often don't know that) or by finding my location on a map on their site (not always easy on a mobile device). I want to be able to tell my phone to paste the coordinates of where I am into the web form for reporting such things.

  • Comment number 9.

    Before, I'd like to see it possible to share your location with a friend by SMS. ie. Press a button to send a text message with your exact GPS co-ordinates, which your friend can then see on their map - excellent for meeting at festivals, etc.

    Numerous programs exist out there to do it, but chances are your friend won't use the same one you do. I thought Nokia's purchase of Navteq would soon lead to some integrated solution by them, but it hasn't.

    I reckon our best hope is Google Maps: it's free, it's almost a de-facto standard, it integrates with GPS and SMS, and it already allows sending a location from the map - just that it currently sends an address, not the coordinates. Add a 'Send coordinate' feature, and suddenly we'll be finding each other again.

  • Comment number 10.

    With a new piece of technology (or in this case, just a bit of integration), there is a clear progression it undertakes - the Hype Cycle -

    This will likely follow the same thing. People will get very excited about the possibility of all the new thing they can do, but after a while get bored and start rejecting it - stocks will crash, articles will be written...and then we'll discover that a bit of it was really very useful.

    The weird thing is that even knowing that this cycle takes place, we are doomed to follow it...

  • Comment number 11.

    How long do you think it will be before the police are tracking you with this technology? Do you really want to explain why you were in a particular location at a particular time?

    With the present government you would always be looking over your electronic shoulder.

    This would just become another method of surveillance.

  • Comment number 12.

    I don't need the world to know where I am. I know where I am, and i can find what I want without it being thrown at me. This is a solution looking for a problem.

  • Comment number 13.

    BLATANT PLUG!! Dskeeles, there is a service that locates your friends via their mobile - sniff – ‘Social Network Integrated Friend Finder’ ( which launched in the UK last month. It’s LBS not GPS but it effectively does the same thing – locates your mates with one text. You can also use it through that other modern wonder, Facebook.

  • Comment number 14.

    In common with most new technology a large proportion of early adopters will be teenagers.

    What better way to protect them than to have their location constantly available for anyone to access.

    Location based services aren't necessarily a bad idea but there has to be a limit on how much personal information is publically available for safety reasons.

    This applies to everybody because the slow erosion of privacy for the sake of experiencing 'the next big thing' will be almost impossible to reinstate at a later date.

  • Comment number 15.

    ha.and if in the future u suddenly find yuhself in a dictatorship it will be so easy to be controlled and arrested...........these stuff are like Trojan horses!

  • Comment number 16.

    In principle, I think this is a great idea. Just make sure you have access to your home webcam so you can watch your house being burgled while you are getting drunk in your new clothes!

  • Comment number 17.

    Fireeagle has too much potential to be ignored even by non-geeks. I can't wait to get my account.

    You see, when it's integrated with Yahoo Events, Yahoo and other 3rd party calendars such as Yahoo calander it's going to be out of this world.

    For instance, if I have an appointment with someone, it makes sense that fireagle lets the other party know my location, 1 hour before, during and slightly after the end meeting time. That way if I'm late, the 3rd party knows about it. Integrated with the right apps, these services will let the right people know at ONLY the right times where I am. Very, very useful. I find nothing scary about it at all. If my mobile phone network - O2 can triangulate where I am, then I have no problem with Yahoo knowing about it and for that data to automatically be shared with whom I want it shared with.

    My only concern is that employers (or anyone else) shouldn't be allowed to pressurize or blackmail people for access to such data.

  • Comment number 18.

    The iPhone does some clever trickery to start with a very broad location and then "zoom in" based on Wifi and (in the new phone) also supplementing this with actual GPS coordinates... The first security app I'm aware of that takes advantage of this to let you know where your lost or stolen iPhone is hiding is iRedHanded

    Does anyone know of any others?

  • Comment number 19.

    It's interesting to see that so far most of the applications the commenters have suggested have been push apps: send your location to a friend, send your location to a meeting attendee, adding specific locations to a report of an incident/issue on the roads, etc.

    Even some of the examples mentioned in the Twitter messages aren't too bad, depending on implementation. Attaching location to content? Sensible enough if it is done by a purposeful action, but not always necessary and sometimes excessively revealing. Finding local gigs and cinema listings? Again, sensible, but best done by having your phone (or other mobile device) populate the field for you. Same with "are my friends near-by" - best if done as a "are any friends in..." that can be auto-populated (because what about the situation where you are in Bolton and want to know who is in Manchester before you head off?)

    I'm 23, but I'd still not trust the majority of the uses the companies would want to put this to. Having the store itself have a short-range transmitter that passively pushes an offer to my phone without being able to identify who it pushed it to wouldn't be too bad, but phoning home to pull data about a variety of things that advertisers want you to know about is too invasive. That, plus you have little/no control over the data transfer and the incurred costs (which would be huge on PAYG!)

    To all those who are happy to have their every movement published to some service: I look forward to the day that your insurance goes up because criminals have found it's a wonderful way to find people who are away from their home.

  • Comment number 20.

    One of the best apps for tracking friends with Fire Eagle is [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] the application also runs in Facebook...

  • Comment number 21.

    All this location based stuff is fantastic in principle but in practice all it will lead to is more breaches of privacy, more spam advertising and just general intrusion on our daily lives.

    I don't know about anyone else here but when I walk down the street I don't want an SMS every 5 yards inviting me into the pub, clothes shop, barbers etc. and the way things are being done these days (Steam use in PC video gaming is a prime example) we won't be asked if we want to use it, we'll be told by the companies peddling it that it's great and we have to use it...

    Not only that but with data fraud on the increase criminals will more and more use such "next big things" as a means to fund themselves and it gets easier and easier the more people adopt such things.

    Also as with all new tech this is something that's only for "those what can afford it".

    By the time the Average Joe* in the street actually gets affordable access to capable devices and apps it'll be prehistoric.

    *Average Joe - someone who doesn't work in London, usually earns less than (as much as half) the national average salary of £24k, which is largely based on the average salary in London and the immediate area, and cannot afford to pay £30+ pcm for an iPhone or similar device.


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