Mr Operator on Google Latitude: No One Saw This Coming

After publishing Andrew of Rummble‘s super take on Google Latitude last week (Latitude: Google’s Trojan Horse (or, Why Who’s Nearby Is Not A Business)), I’m delighted to bring you a brand new Mr Operator piece.

He’s been crazy busy over recent weeks and, indeed months, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to bring you more of his pieces. I know that they are immensely popular — it’s all down to his availability.

If you’d like to catch up on the background to Mr Operator, I suggest reading this introductory piece. You can read all of Mr Operator’s pieces here.

Here’s a quick overview. His identity is a closely held secret. Think of him like Top Gear’s Stig.

He is that man. He’s the guy you pitch at one of the world’s largest international operators. Hardly a week goes by where he doesn’t send me a text privately ridiculing yet another high profile startup that’s just been sent marching, tail between their legs, from his office. He does the best he can to help smooth rough diamonds but, geez, the stories he tells me. He doesn’t ridicule them for spite. It’s frustration. He’s hugely frustrated with the total lack of understanding displayed by most entrepreneurs trying to do business with operators.

Let me try and imitate Jeremy Clarkson.

“Some say he was raised by wolves in the Russian tundra — and might have a mobile base station as a parent. All we know is he’s called Mr Operator…”

Here we go:

– – – – –

There’s been a lot of Latitude noise in the last few days. The tabloid press has raised the usual spectres – spying partners, snooping bosses – all the while blissfully unaware of the irony. An industry that prides itself on deception, underhand reporting tactics, anonymous tipsters and general peeping into other’s lives to make money shouldn’t protest so loud methinks.

You can see The Sun / Express headline now: “Google Got Me Fired”…”Google Destroyed My Marriage”…”Google Abducted My Child”. The fact that any parties involved had to explicitly opt-in to the upgrade/download, had to sign in, had to turn Latitude on, had to add contacts, had to set their location sharing on – mere technicalities. No-one’s going to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

However it is this reaction and the great unwashed’s assumed agreement that will have MNO’s thinking twice. No-one will want to be the first to launch something that will be dubbed the ‘SpyPhone’. The fact that all MNO’s have – to one degree or another – relationships with Google, that a large majority of their devices support Latitude, and in some cases they actively pushed Google services to customers (T-Mobile) just adds to the apprehension. Some will be feeling a bit blindsided by this – word on the street is that no-one saw this coming so soon. Even product managers who meet up with Google reps on a near-daily basis were in the dark. This is a release worthy of Cupertino.

Regardless, the LoMoSoSo cat/bag ratio is lower than it was a week ago.

Right now it is the geekerati who are playing with Latitude, and mulling over its limitations, possibilities and implications. Much dire talk has been made of the chances of location-based social networks now Google has made its move. Companies are frantically scrabbling to find points of differentiation, to spin themselves as being still relevant in a post-Latitude world. Location Product Managers are being questioned by the C-level, and in turn they are questioning existing providers and those pitching – “What’s your answer to Latitude?” “Why shouldn’t I just wait?” etc. Crunched VC’s with little free cash will be taking the blowtourch to LBS business plans over the next few months. Expect some LoMoSoSo firesales come summertime. As if it wasn’t hard enough already…

Latitude 1.0 has shown what the platform can do. We’ll have to wait for the next evolution to see relevance come into the mix, and it is then that the masses will see the advantages. Others on this site and elsewhere have raised the challenge that mere location is not worthy, but context is. Right now you need to make your own context, and that’s just too hard a sell for anyone outside the circle of S60 / iPhone fanbois. Putting the onus on the user to join the dots won’t work. Like Amazon’s recommendations, Latitude needs to be pushing stuff to you in a manner indistinguishable from magic. ‘Can’t-resist’ offers from retailers you love, proximity notifications from friends you like, much more relevant results from searches. The magic, the added value, plus bringing the privacy controls more to the fore will greatly ease the sell to the masses.

If you are at a loose end, you should be able to broadcast as such to those friends nearby. You don’t need to know Bob is a block away beforehand, and anyway that’s too stalkerish for most, and mapwatching is a timewaster for you. So Bob receives a tap on the shoulder that you are around and up for a drink, knowing he can ignore without you being aware of the rejection if desired. The paradigm is already there in the many requests for SocNet connections we ignore. Indeed, rejection of meeting requests via Outlook with the “Reject and do not respond” has been with us for two decades. It’s become accepted not to friend someone back. No RSVP necessary.

For a family on holiday, Latitude means parents and teens can split up. Mum off to look at shoes, dad off to check out that Vespa dealer, teens off to hang out around that cool fountain where all the locals were spotted last night. Meeting up a few hours later for lunch just became a whole lot easier. Fire up GMaps, click on the rest of the family and choose ‘Get directions’. Dead easy. Of course this relies on roaming data being cheap enough, but we are getting there. Certainly within a year or so with EU regulation looming unless MNO’s pull finger, the idea of your mobile being a useful tool for holiday navigation is quite viable. Imagine disappearing into winding backstreets, following your nose through bazaars, souks, architecture, whatever rings your bell. But knowing that you can easily and quickly find your way back to others in your party.

I envisage a ‘Degrees of Awareness’, where your best friend/sibling/spouse and you both are set to always visible, always proximity-alarmed. You always want to know when they are near. Unless you are doing something deceptive, you’d have no reason not to do this. However your colleagues are a level or two down. You might be interested in knowing if a business contact is stuck in the same snowed-in airport, maybe not.

The apparent suspicion that some claim would be leveled at those appearing offline is a non-issue. Look at how often apps on handsets log out / crash these days. How often do mobiles go out of coverage? The continued realities of mobile life will be the perfect reason, should – however unlikely it may be – someone confront you. Whether you were the victim of an app crash / poor coverage or were deliberately hiding is entirely between you and your mobile.

So unfounded angst / tabloid hypocrisy aside, what does the next year hold?

1) No MNO will actively push Latitude. There’s no service Latitude enables they can monetise anyway. They won’t block upgrades, but they won’t be advertising it either.

2) Google will enhance the IM function, to allow GTalk / Jabber use right from the map display. GTalk will become sexy. Already the status in Latitude pulls from / pushes to GTalk.

3) Added levels of granularity / contact grouping will evolve, with time/day of week settings too. Just as mobiles can block / allow calls from different groups based on time/day/profile, so will Latitude publish / hide / alert you accordingly.

Look for Latitude 2.0 to take off in 1-2 years time, once the general privacy panic has evaporated under the sunny beam of real-world usefulness. Assuming the API’s are exposed, handset vendors will begin to integrate the proximity info into contact lists, and add menu options bringing the privacy options more to the fore. These may tie in with API’s for other LBS apps a la Fire Eagle, but Google have already denied this is on the cards, citing privacy concerns. Maybe some clever-clogs will do some sort of PC or mobile daemon to bring the Latitude functionality into the open. Whether Google can share API’s with handset vendors but not others will be interesting to watch. There will certainly be cachet in being the first to bring deep Latitude integration to a device.

Of great interest will be what the new Yahoo! CEO decides to do with Fire Eagle. It’s been flapping along for a few years now, garnering much kudos within LBS circles for its openness but zero attention from the world in general. There’s not much difference in functionality, apart from the open/shut API thing. Brand Google is a massive leg-up over the myriad of Fire Eagle apps, and if Yahoo! can get over the privacy aspects, so can Google. But if there’s value in remaining closed, they will do so. Google aren’t a charity, and Fire Eagle has yet to show a valid strategy for continuing to suck up resource from Yahoo!. Yahoo! don’t have a Mobile GMaps to nail Fire Eagle onto, and all the Fire Eagle players are so far below the consumer radar they might as well be under water.

Overall Latitude has been a long time coming, and was always going to cause a flap. Two years from now, it will be mature and integrated into modern life. Bring it on.

– – – – –

Excellent. Thank you very much Mr Operator.

If you’d like to get Mr Operator’s viewpoint on an issue, drop me a note and I’ll suggest it. And if you’d like Mr Operator to give you a perspective on how an international operator would react to doing business with you, let me know. But be warned, we’ve tried this before and, with a few exceptions, the reality is often not publishable.

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  • “Look for Latitude 2.0 to take off in 1-2 years time, once the general privacy panic has evaporated under the sunny beam of real-world usefulness.”

    Very good point. I was explaining Latitude and it's potential to an (older) colleague last week –

    “That's very clever, but it sounds really creepy.” was his comment.

    “How did you feel about Faceboook 2 years ago?” I asked,

    “Uh, good point – I felt pretty much the same and I guess I'm using that now.”

    Mr Operator is right – give it about 2 years to cross the mass market acceptability tipping point and Lattitude (or Fire Eagle if Yahoo can get in the market) platformed services will be everywhere. Once operators start to offer free tariffs in exchange for accepting targeted location aware advertising this model will become inevitable.

  • Nice post, i hadn’t heard much of latitude but after reading this, it might just be the next big deal. I could see some really cool ways to use it. thanks.

  • An intelligent and informed analysis :), thanks. I am not sure if I share the confidence re: mobile data costs (and any technical issues for users), but it would be great if Mr Operator turned out to be right on this. Even UK-wide, let alone roaming. Fact is if you’re a contract, or especially PAYG user and you even dare think about firing up a data using app right now, you’re looking at an insane and bankruptcy inducing bill at the turn of the month.

    The other issue is a fundamental discomfort I have with relying wholesale on a closed system from a single company. It’s about control. We should not have a situation where the whole (or most of the) world relies solely (or mainly) on Latitude for their location related services. Then one company has too much power. Open standards are a lot more comfortable because it’s a democratic agreement, and power sharing. How that gets implemented in practice I’m not sure, but it’s entirely possible for Google – Android has proved it.

    Alex

  • as Alex Kerr points out, it is the MNO who are holding us back.
    It is the fear of a bankruptcy inducing bill, along with memories of being ripped off for SMS & alls when roaming from years ago that holds many of us back.

    The first MNO to offer a sensible data roaming package (alerts when you are getting close to your expected limit etc), possibly with dual sim (so one can be used in one of those 3G USB modems that are so popular now) should get killed in the rush.

  • Further to my comment above, I was looking at CloudMade http://www.cloudmade.com and OpenStreetMap http://www.openstreetmap.org – both from the same guys, but the former is a commercial enterprise.

    These guys seem to be really where it’s at, at least in terms of good, open, reliable services. You should do an article on them Ewan 🙂

  • Mike42

    “Fact is if you're a contract, or especially PAYG user and you even dare think about firing up a data using app right now, you're looking at an insane and bankruptcy inducing bill at the turn of the month.”

    er….are you sure about this Alex? I thought that every UK operator had a flat-rate internet add-on for around the £5-10 mark. Hardly bankruptcy. Or have I been asleep and dreaming for the last year?

    Granted the roaming situation is fraught, unless you are on 3, in a 3 sister country. In coverage 😉

    VF passport nations have data at £5/MB/day, but you pay per 10KB. They estimate 1MB = 40 pages. 25KB per page. 50p = 4 pages = 12.5p / page.

    And once you've hit that £5 mark, they throw in another 14MB free.

    Now I'm no mobile packet data wizard, but I imagine you could shift a lot of location co-ordinate updates into 25KB.

    With 15MB = to play with, per day – 600 pages – that's a shedload of browsing, map updates, etc.

    But yeah, I would be rather spooked firing up an app in somewhere dodgy.

    /m

  • Yeah sorry you're absolutely right, it was a typo on my part, I meant to say “Fact is if you're a contract, or especially PAYG user and *without a flat rate data plan*, and you even dare think…” but didn't realise until after I'd submitted.

    Anyway, agreed, there is some room for maneuver depending on a plan. But most/many people aren't on flat rate plans and even more have a fear of large billshock whether founded or not. And if you go abroad it's magnified 10 fold (the problem and the perception).

    This all needs to change radically, which won't happen because it's operators we're dealing with here…

  • Yeah sorry you're absolutely right, it was a typo on my part, I meant to say “Fact is if you're a contract, or especially PAYG user and *without a flat rate data plan*, and you even dare think…” but didn't realise until after I'd submitted.

    Anyway, agreed, there is some room for maneuver depending on a plan. But most/many people aren't on flat rate plans and even more have a fear of large billshock whether founded or not. And if you go abroad it's magnified 10 fold (the problem and the perception).

    This all needs to change radically, which won't happen because it's operators we're dealing with here…

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