Local Search

YPG in Canada Launches iPhone, BlackBerry Apps

Canada's Yellow Pages Group has launched iPhone and BlackBerry applications. The straightfoward, though nicely designed applications -- I've only seen the iPhone app -- offer local business search, reverse lookups and people search. Location can be manually entered or found via GPS. Results can then be saved under "My Favs" or shared via email or SMS. 

There's also voice-based search, although I haven't been able to use it because I have an iPod Touch rather than an iPhone. I was also unable to get any results for the US market, which makes sense. 

YPG iphone app

In addition to yellow pages, Yellow Pages Group also owns Trader Corporation in Canada, publishers of vertical advertising directories and classifieds. It also owns and operates a range of Canadian cityguides (e.g., MontrealPlus.ca). Consequently the company has a range of "vertical" options and could develop other types of apps around restaurants and entertainment or some of its Trader categories. 

In the US, AT&T has developed several vertical apps (downloading one ties into the others), which represent a kind of back door into the YPMobile app. None are branded "yellow pages;" they're called Have2Snack, Have2P, Have2Drink, but they essentially repurpose other Yellowpages.com/YPMobile content and offer another way to drive traffic to AT&T listings and advertisers. 

 ATT Have2P

Unlike its US counterparts, Yellow Pages Group owns the "yellow pages" trademark so no other app developer targeting the Canadian market can use that term.

Google Adds Places Layer to iPhone Earth App

Google has introduced the "places" layer of Google Earth on the PC to the iPhone. Tapping a blue, square icon on the map brings up a range of different content types (video, Wikipedia entries, images) for the particular location. All this remains within the Google Earth experience. 


Google Earth has never been a particularly good local search tool on the PC. Though a terrific educational tool, it's large and much slower than Google Maps. But on the iPhone one can efficiently use it to find information about places, businesses and venues. And because of the variety of content type on Earth, it's a more interesting tool than the iPhone version of Google Maps.

Hands Free and in Car with Twitter

Here comes more movement for Twitter toward real-time Q&A/search. According to this blog, Twitter is coming to OnStar:

Using OnStar’s Voice-Activated Hands-Free Calling system, and having your voice converted into text, you can provide updates which would appear in the “What are you doing?” section of your Twitter homepage. It is also possible to listen to a tweet that was sent to you by someone else after it has been converted into voice. You can send and receive tweets without having to type or read anything.”

This is fascinating. We've talked about Twitter morphing into a DA-like, social directory service where you ask your "followers" for recommendations and receive them in near real time. This potential in-car integration would further that use case for sure.

And just because it's so good, here's the Twitter send-up from Current TV: "We've wasted our lives." 

ShopSavvy on G1 Now Showing Krillion Local Product Inventory Data

Barcode readers and scanners should be a common part of the next generation of smartphones. But for now the capability among US handsets is limited.

ShopSavvy (from Big in Japan) brought this functionality to the Android G1 (it doesn't exist on the iPhone). The camera-phone-based scanner allows users to get information on products by scanning barcodes on packaging. ShopSavvy had also promised data on local product inventory. However that promise was largely unfulfilled.

Now the company has announced a partnership with Krillion to integrate Krillion's real-time product inventory database into ShopSavvy:

Through technology developed by Krillion, shoppers can now view real-time product inventory at local stores when they use the ShopSavvy application to scan a product barcode. This means they can quickly identify a local retailer with in-stock product and then purchase the product online for immediate pick-up at a nearby store. 

I haven't used it but imagine that one could a) straightforwardly search for local products in nearby stores w/o scanning and b) use this to see who has a better deal on the product scanned nearby

uLocate's WHERE Offers New Location-Aware Mobile Site with Sprint

uLocate's WHERE has launched a location-enabled mobile Web site (not an application) in conjunction with Sprint, with which it has a long-standing relationship:

With access to network-based location on the Sprint network, WHERE provides nearby search results, even on non GPS-enabled devices, without requiring users to report their location. Sprint users can now browse to WHERE (m.where.com) on their phone’s Web browser and easily find locally relevant information from AccuWeather to ZipCar. 

WHERE has also been experimenting with some innovative social features on its client application for the G1. 

The benefit of the Sprint relationship is that the mobile site can detect location without the need for a download, a GPS chip in the phone or triangulation; current location is supplied via the carrier. Any user with mobile Web access can get the site; however location would need to be manually set for non-Sprint customers.

Where app

Yellow Pages and Local Mobile Search

US yellow pages publisher RH Donnelley just launched its "DexKnows" set of mobile sites/apps. That now completes the quartet of major US publishers with mobile sites and applications: Yellowpages.com, Idearc (with a new iPhone app coming) and Yellowbook. In particular AT&T's YPMobile application has been quite popular and successful as an iPhone app. 

In Europe, MobilePeople has been building mobile apps and sites for YP publishers for several years. Now, in the US, mobile is no longer a novelty or "nice to have." It's a critical part of an overall traffic and brand strategy. As print usage in major metro markets continues to decline and the consumer market fragments even further, mobile is another piece of the traffic puzzle.

However the challenge for these publishers is to really do mobile in a way that makes it an asset rather than simply a bunch of listings distributed on a mobile handset. There are plenty of mobile apps and sites that provide local listings data. Arguably the mobile market is more competitive in this way than online.

One way in which the DexKnows iPhone app does something different on its iPhone app is by employing an Urbanspoon-like spinner/slot machine feature under a category called "Feelin' like." It provides restaurant listings by "genre" and location. That same tool also works with travel related services (e.g., lodging) and attractions (e.g., museums).

YP Mobile has included events (from Zvents), which stretches beyond the online product.  

For most YP publishers, mobile will be a "defensive" strategy to avoid losing users as they shift to mobile, rather than a way to gain new users. Yet unimaginative apps or sites will fail to serve even this function. Mobile is similar to online in many respects. But there are also important differences and publishers should be sensitive to those differences accordingly. For example the categories of usage in mobile are going to be different (at least in the near term) from those in the print directory or online. The "feelin' like" functionality on the Dex iPhone app recognizes this. 

Dex also offers 1-800-Call-Dex, which is a free-DA service.

The question remains in my mind: Are YP publishers "culturally" up to the task of creating compelling mobile applications and experiences (which might include verticals or specialized apps) vs. simply reproducing their directories on the handset. 

Whrrl Reinvents Itself with '2.0' Launch

Mobile-social network Whrrl was essentially a reinvention of Yelp with location awareness on the mobile handset. There was a PC site as well but the company's focus was on mobile. On Friday Pelago (Whrrl's developer-parent) relaunched the site with a new look, new positioning and a new iPhone app. 

The map is no longer the central metaphor for the site, although location is still a central element of the experience. Finding things to do and places to go is no longer the site's reason for being. Instead the emphasis now is on telling stories: Twitter-like missives combined with images.

Whrrl PC

VentureBeat and CNET have largely positive reviews of the changes and the new app. But another view might be that Whrrl's shift and repositioning were compelled by necessity and the idea that as a mobile-social/LBS site there were too many competitors already and the company wasn't getting adoption. That's got to be partly the case. 

Whrrl iphone

But here's what CEO Jeff Holden said on the company's blog about the changes:

Whrrl was a very worthy experiment, but we learned a couple of important things that led us to conclude we should build a different product.

First, people don’t really like writing reviews very much. Only a very small percentage of users actually wanted to take the time to write a review. When we talked to our users, they told us that reviews are too impersonal and they’re just not very engaging. They told us that what they really wanted to share was their stories. The second big learning was that gratification in Whrrl came too slowly — before a new user would start seeing social discovery benefit, they had to contribute quite a bit. This really had its root in the first point: since sharing reviews wasn’t very motivating for people, they needed a greater reward to do it. And truly getting to the discovery benefit was a bridge too far.

I'm sure Holden is accurately representing what Whrrl's users said. Yet, while it's true that only a small percentage (<10%) of people write reviews, more established sites like Yelp contradict Holden's generalization. GoodRec, a mobile-centric ratings site, also said that it's seeing 50% of its reviews coming from mobile (mostly the iPhone). It's likely that Whrrl as it was constituted before the change didn't give users enough of a reason to use the site (vs. more established competitors). 

The redesign and repositioning may turn out to be a great move and help the site really take off. But that remains to be seen.

The new site effectively abandons the idea that it's creating an independent network and seeks to leverage Facebook and Twitter directly, although that has been true for a few months. It also seeks to leverage the "culture of updates" that Twitter created and that Facebook is also seeking to capitalize on.

The new site is no longer like Yelp or Citysearch or other local review sites. But now that Whrrl has become more like Twitter, the question is: is there enough here that's different to motivate people to use it?

ShopSavvy Integrates Skyhook Location Tools

Last week Big in Japan, creator of the barcode scanning Android app ShopSavvy, announced that it had integrated the Skyhook location awareness suite of tools. The G1 has built-in GPS but the Skyhook tools will be used to augment that and better provide location-related data that facilitates delivery of nearby store inventory information.

ShopSavvy crawls for data and works with Krillion to provide local product inventory. 

ShopSavvy in action

Other mobile providers of local inventory data include NearbyNow and TheFind (which gets data from NearbyNow). In-store price comparisons and local inventory lookups are going to be increasingly popular as smartphones continue to grow share. 

However ShopSavvy in the US is currently unique; there is no comparable barcode scanning app today for the iPhone, WinMo, Symbian or BlackBerry. Yet we can expect to see much more use of the camera as a search tool across smartphones in the future -- with barcodes, QR codes, etc. And many of those codes will likely be embedded in traditional media: magazines, newspapers, outdoor.

From a usability standpoint this "camera search" capability is roughly akin to voice interfaces in a way, expediting the retrieval and return of information. 

go2 Introduces Mobile Entertainment Guides: 'go2 Colleges'

Go2 is one of the true incumbents in mobile, having started more than a decade ago. The current version of go2 is the result of a merger of the original company and 80108 in October, 2007. The company claims more than a million monthly users.

The company has a range of major carrier relationships and distributes most of its content (and advertising) accordingly through those operator decks. However go2 has seen many of those gains somewhat obscured by the movement of higher profile players into the mobile space in earnest and the shifting of the high end of the market away from the carrier deck and toward the open Internet.

go2 has taken a smart local-vertical approach to content and ads delivery with a range of niche directories. Consistent with that the company today announced "mobile entertainment guides" for "473 US colleges." Characterized as local entertainment portals, here's how the release describes the new guides:

The guides are available on AT&T MediaNET's NCAA Basketball site as "News and Events from Your School," where students can access local events, movie showtimes, college sports scores and recommendations from the go2 Content Network.

The guides will soon be available to Virgin Mobile/Helio and Sprint/Nextel subscribers.

go2 Colleges provides students with an unmatched array of useful entertainment info in one portal designed around their campus location. Students can check constantly updated local event info about movies, concerts and school sporting events or access a directory of restaurants and bars close to campus.

In fairness to go2 I haven't used the guides and so can't comment on how strong they are. If they're good people will use and promote them via word of mouth. Their greatest usage may well be on "feature phones" where consumers can't as easily access familiar Internet brands and sites that they're accustomed to using on their PCs. 

Yahoo! Offers Up Inquisitor for Mobile, Near Potential Search Deal with Vodafone

Rumor has it that Yahoo! is in talks with Vodafone UK to replace Google as the default search provider in that market. In the US, Microsoft won that derby for Verizon's business at apparently great cost. Verizon Wireless is a JV of Vondafone and Verizon.

Search providers that are "behind" must win these deals to habituate users to their experience, look and feel, etc.

Yahoo! has the strongest mobile content brand, but Google is the mobile search leader. Indeed, Google has such brand strength and association with search that losing all these default deals might not significantly affect usage. Still Google will probably strive to retain and renew the Vodafone relationship. 

Separately, a week ago Yahoo!, released search tool Inquistor for the iPhone:


While Inquisitor is graphically nice to look at and generally helpful it's not a revelation. There are thus two responses to the launch in my mind:

  • Why the heck is Yahoo! launching a separate search brand/experience when it just cleaned up and de-fragmented its mobile offerings with the new and improved Yahoo! Mobile?
  • Alternatively, another search brand might give it access to some users who, for whatever reason, are disinclined to use Yahoo! as a mobile search engine. 

BlackBerry Apps Store Launches (See Correction)

There's no question that BlackBerry's new apps store, "Built for BlackBerry" is critical to the longer term success of the platform. However, right now it's critical for defensive reasons mostly.

The store has launched with roughly 75 apps, about 5-7 of which (by my count) are local or about place. The apps are organized into the following categories:

  • Home
  • News & Weather
  • Sports
  • Travel & Mapping
  • Games & Entertainment
  • Music & Media
  • Lifestyle
  • Finance & Banking

BlackBerry Apps Store

The arrival of the apps store should be a boost to several of the apps providers, including Poynt, one of the few local search apps currently. Yelp competitor and mobile social site Whrrl is also there. Interestingly Poynt is under Travel & Mapping, while Whrrl is classified under lifestyle. Apparently business listings are for travel but recommendations and friend finding are for "fun."

It's quite unlikely that BlackBerry will win many new users with its apps. Rather it will help retain users and may slightly broaden its consumer appeal. 

From everything that I've seen and from individuals whom I spoken with, the Storm is largely a bust while the Bold is a big hit. The Storm was in some respects an attempt to "answer" the iPhone and appeal to sophisticated users who are not in the BlackBerry camp. But for BlackBerry to truly gain consumer adoption it will need to build other new devices that move beyond its familiar enterprise comfort zone.


Related: The iPhone apps store has apparently now crossed the 25K apps threshold

The placeholder for the Windows Mobile apps store is here

Correction: I stand corrected. I'm not a BlackBerry user so I was unaware of the site above, which I'm told has existed for some time. I'm told the true BlackBerry apps store has not in fact launched yet.

TheFind Integrates Coupons into Product Search Results

TheFind, which offers an iPhone app with local inventory data, has just started integrating third party coupons directly into search results. According to the press release that went out earlier today:

On each search results page, consumers can immediately see all matching products, including ones that have coupons and discounts offered by stores. Shoppers can filter their search results to only show products on sale, or with special offers, such as free shipping or percentage discounts. 

Here's an example search result and an example of how the coupons are integrated at the product level:

find result

When users roll over products they will see a window:

find coupon integration

I haven't yet spoken to the company but I assume that this will ultimately come to the mobile offering as well.  

AOL Launches "My Places" on MapQuest for Mobile

Today AOL/MapQuest launched "My Places" for MapQuest4Mobile. My Places launched online last year as "My MapQuest," offering personalization to PC users of the MapQuest site. It allows users to save maps and directions online and, now, access that content in mobile. It offers a much richer experience than standard "send to mobile" online maps functionality.

The renaming of the product captures its intent in a more intuitive way according to Christian Dwyer, Senior Vice President and General Manager, MapQuest. Dwyer and I spoke about a range of things associated with the mobile launch and evolution of the MapQuest site online.

There are two primary mobile products from MapQuest:

  • MapQuest4Mobile
  • MapQuest Navigator (a paid turn-by-turn GPS application at $7.99 per mo.) 

MapQuest4Mobile is a free application basically is available for BlackBerry devices today. It launched in September and Dwyer said that on a limited number of handsets he's seen 15% month over month growth. He added that MapQuest4Mobile would quickly expanding rapidly to other devices, including the iPhone and Android by Q2. Today MapQuest offers a special iPhone-optimized version of the site, accessible through mobile Safari.

Dwyer said that his team sees convergence going forward and that they're striving for a uniform experience whether on the PC or in mobile. 

Dwyer and I also spoke about some of the developments at Bebo and what's now being called the AOL People network, which includes the AIM property. There are some pretty interesting scenarios -- provided they can be executed -- involving mobile, location and sharing/social. 

After a long period of inertia, MapQuest is moving to upgrade and improve the user experience. My Places on MapQuest4Mobile is just one of a string of recent announcements that involves a new MapQuest PC homepage and MapQuest Local online, which is a compelling product that will probably make its way into mobile in the future. 

Another development today, MapQuest Local launched a concert tracker widget that pushes local concert information to users based on default location. 


Yahoo! Mobile a Big Step Forward

Authour and I sat down on Friday morning for breakfast and a demo of the new Yahoo! Mobile with Marc Davis, who has several hats but is known by the formal title "Chief Scientist and VP of ESP, Yahoo! Connected Life."

Both Dan and I were very impressed with the new apps and experience, which brings oneSearch, oneConnect and onePlace together in a more intuitive way. It also makes the experience more consistent across platforms. Most of the caffeine fueled discussion was off the record. But I'll say a few things.

Previously Yahoo! created some confusion in my view with a range of experiences across a range of mobile sites and apps. There was "GO," the uber-app; there were oneSearch, oneConnect and onePlace. Then there was the mobile Web version of the Yahoo! homepage, which was completely divorced from these other experiences. The client app oneConnect was available for the iPhone but oneSearch didn't have a dedicated iPhone app. Nor was there a iPhone GO app. GO contained all these subsidiary tools/experiences but wasn't widely available. 

Now that's all cleaned up and subsumed under "Yahoo! Mobile." And the mobile Web version is really terrific -- as good or in some ways even better than the dedicated app. GO, for its part, is being phased out over time.

The entire Yahoo! Mobile "suite" is compelling. But the surprise for me was oneConnect, which I've had on my iPod Touch for many months, but haven't used with any regularity. Its intention is to organize users' contacts and social networks in a single tool that allows you to update status or broadcast one-to-many from mobile devices. Though imperfect, there is radical potential in the oneConnect functionality of the new Yahoo! Mobile. 

Overall the new Yahoo! Mobile is a dramatic improvement over Yahoo!'s prior collection of mobile experiences. It's not simply a mobile search engine but a comprehensive set of tools and functionality that covers search, feeds/news, social media and third party content distribution. 

There's nothing else out there right now that competes with it. Now Yahoo! just needs to bring it to market and show people the benefits of using it. 

Here's a video that offers a little taste of the new experience. 

New Management, New Services at Idearc

If you visit the venerable Superpages.com this morning you will notice something decidedly different. A new service called “SuperGuarantee” now occupies top billing on home page, and it represents a breakthrough product for Idearc, superpages.com and, ultimately, the Yellow Pages directory business at large. There are also enhancements to the mobile version of superpages.com that we’ll note in more detail in a later post.

My colleague has his take on SuperGuarantee here. As you will see, it reflects new product positioning and new sales tactics by a company with tremendous incentive to reshape itself and the sets of services that it offers. It reflects a new approach brought to the organization by Scott Klein, who was hired to be CEO in June 2008. A combination turn-around expert and packaged goods maven, Klein melded a small set of marketing “outsiders” with the top performers among incumbent employees to launch a series of initiatives that do nothing less than transform a Yellow Pages publisher with diverse and disperse Internet properties into the sort of local advertising and promotional consulting firm with a broad array of products designed to help small businesses survive and thrive during this economic downturn.

SuperGuarantee, the initial offering, is such a product. It is a high-visibility service assurance program whereby SuperPages issues a “SuperGuarantee Shield” to eligible businesses that have bought advertising in the printed Yellow Pages directory. For those businesses, Idearc guarantees customer satisfaction, first by bringing an alternative vendor in to “fix it” or by paying the customer up to $500 toward successful repairs or completion of the task. The guarantee applies to some 3,000 categories, primarily service companies. It explicitly excludes a good number of professional service providers – such as doctors, lawyers, travel consultants and even churches and hairdressers – where make-goods could lead to significant liability or where the definition of an unsatisfactory job could be highly subjective.

Starting today, eligible local businesses are invited to register “free of charge” for the first year. They can then display the SuperGuarantee badge on their storefronts, business vehicles, uniforms and advertisements. We see it as a bold move by a Yellow Pages publisher to define a broader set of services on behalf of local business and we’ve been told by CEO Klein that there are many more innovations to be introduced in the next few months that will help redefine the services – across multiple media and mobile resources - that local businesses can employ to help attract more local customers. All portend a broader and different role for the local directory publisher.

NY Times on Maps, 'Augmented Reality' and LBS in Mobile

John Markoff, a terrifically thoughtful writer on technology for the NY Times, has written a sweeping piece on mobile mapping, navigation, LBS and augmented reality. It touches on most of the issues and possibilities for "local mobile search" as a metaphor for finding things locally on a mobile device. 

Most fascinating to me is the notion of "augmented reality," which exists already to varying degrees in Japan and somewhat on the Android compass function. This is a very strong future direction for mobile mapping and LBS. Imagine holding up your camera at a restaurant from the outside and seeing all the reviews for that restaurant. That's a very mundane example. Imagine doing that at a store and seeing what brands were on sale on the inside, etc.

Something along these lines is the reconciliation of the realities of privacy and user behavior with the long-held LBS "Starbucks coupon" fantasy. Regardless, such use cases exist or are not far away.

I've long been fascinated by the "point and search" functionality that already exists from GeoVector, NeoMedia, SnapTell, Mobot and others. There's keyboard/keypad as a query entry mechanism and more recently voice search (e.g., Vlingo, Tellme, Google, Nuance, etc.). But the camera on a smartphone represents another input system that may prove equally if not more powerful. ShopSavvy on Android, as well as other bar code and QR code readers, are starting to gain attention and some adoption in the US.

I could be mistaken about the emergence of augmented reality and/or camera-phone based search functionality in the US but I don't think I am. It's really just a question of time. 

USAToday: ChaCha Best of 'Voice Search'

USAToday Personal Tech columnist Edward Baig writes about and compares various "voice search" tools based on his own experiences with several services:

  • ChaCha
  • Vlingo
  • Yahoo! oneSearch (powered by Vlingo)
  • Google voice search 

His reviews of all of the services are mixed but his favorite is among them is ChaCha:

ChaCha is addictive, because you feel compelled to ask just about anything and more often than not get a decent reply. "What has more calories, peas or carrots?" (It's peas.)

It's a little bit "apples to oranges" because ChaCha uses human beings to respond to queries. Also missing from the comparison were Tellme and/or any of the "free DA" services.

However the tools that Baig used above are all more flexible "search" services that allow people to go beyond the conventional address and number lookups of the DA and free DA services. 

Yahoo! Upgrades oneSearch Shortcut with Auto-Locate, Voice

Earlier this week Yahoo! announced several upgrades to its oneSearch Shortcut (which requires a client download) including improved search suggestions, voice and location triangulation. The oneSearch shortcut is available on Nokia, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile phones. Unfortunately it's not yet available for the iPhone or iPod Touch.

According to a Yahoo! blog post from earlier this week:

Today we’re launching several new features for the Yahoo! oneSearch Shortcut, including an auto-locate feature that uses cell tower triangulation and Wi-Fi to detect the user’s location, enhanced Search Assist that incorporates the user’s recent search history, and a Windows Mobile client.

As mentioned it also includes voice search (powered by Vlingo). Collectively these features are terrific. However Google has largely the same feature set already.

In order to make up some lost ground in mobile search Yahoo! will need to roll out new features more quickly to more platforms and add things that aren't available at Google. 

Yahoo! oneSearch and the Yahoo! Go client were ahead of rivals when they first launched. However Google in the past year has matched much of that original functionality and has more recently been quicker to upgrade and roll out new mobile features and products. 

Survey: iPhone Users See More Ads, 25% Went to Store or Purchased

A survey from mobile social network Limbo on the attitudes and behavior of 2,000 mobile phone users in the US and UK in Q4 shows, consistent with other data, that iPhone owners are more engaged across the board and are seeing more ads. They're also responding more too.

Here are some topline data from the survey report:

  • 80% of iPhone owners use mobile data vs. 60% of other mobile users
  • 10% of mobile phone owners used LBS tools in Q4: e.g., map, friend finder or restaurant locator. This was true for 22% of those in the 25-34 age group. 
  • 33% of mobile users recall seeing mobile ad in Q4 vs. 41% of iPhone users (reflecting greater ad penetration on the iPhone platform)
  • "The vast majority of these ads were seen in text messages"
  • Phone owners are 2X as likely to see ads and 4X as likely to see game-related or LBS advertising

 SMS and LBS

Source: Limbo/GfK Technology (2009) 

More than 162 million consumers used text messaging in Q4, by far the dominant form of mobile data usage

Women and younger people (18-24) are most likely to respond to ads

Specifics regarding ad response:

  • 16% of ad-aware consumers said they made a phone call to a number in an ad
  • 1 out of 7 (14%) went to a mobile website
  • 1 out of 7 "reported that they had bought a product or visited a store as a result of seeing a mobile advertisement." For iPhone users that same number is 1 in 4 (25%) actually bought something or went to a store after seeing a mobile ad (based on self reported data)

Latitude Brings Google into Mobile Social Networking -- Big Time

Google missed the boat on social networking -- big time. While Google CEO Eric Schmidt occasionally points out here and there that Orkut is popular (outside the US), the company had a chance to buy MySpace and it declined before the network was picked up by News Corp several years ago.

We wrote yesterday that mobile social networking is on the rise and Facebook has reported strong growth in mobile users on a global basis. Now Google has entered the "mobile social networking fray" with a new service called Latitude, which is part of Google Maps for Mobile. It allows users to share location in real time on their mobile handsets and/or through a desktop iGoogle Gadget.

Rather than a new "social network" however it's a logical extension of Google Maps for Mobile. It uses Google's existing "My Location" and other tools to enable people on Maps for Mobile to share their location with a selective group of contacts -- those who opt-in to participate.

After an initial period of testing the service has launched in 27 countries in North America, Europe and Asia and on the following platforms: BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android. An iPhone/iPod Touch version is coming soon. 

I've written extensively about Latitude on Search Engine Land and will be issuing an Advisory to LMS clients shortly. 

On the central question of privacy, Google has taken pains to give users total control over whether they opt-in to use the service at all, whom they connect with and whether they can be seen or are hidden. It's conceptually like IM in that regard. Indeed, the new service integrates with Google Talk on the mobile handset (where supported). This is a key feature that should be quite popular. 

Users can share location and add one another via email address or their GMail contacts. Thus the set up is relatively painless and Google accelerates adoption because of the dual installed base of GMail and Maps for Mobile users. Accordingly we predict it will be immediately competitive with (or leapfrog) similar services from Loopt, Pelago/Whrrl and uLocate, among others. It also shares features -- like manual control over location -- with Yahoo!'s Fire Eagle

As mentioned, there is mobile-desktop integration through an iGoogle Gadget (though not Google Maps proper). However the Gadget is only currently available in the US. According to senior product manager Steve Lee, there are no plans to monetize Latitude beyond that which is already going on in Google Maps/Search. 

Here's a video demonstrating how the service works.