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.