LOS ANGELES -- Phone calls and text messages are great for one-on-one communication, but they're less effective for keeping in touch with a circle of friends. New cell phone services use handset features such as GPS and cameras to maintain and enhance personal communities.
The ability to track down friends and find out what they're up to--and to do so quickly--is the primary appeal of Loopt, an application and service that Boost Mobile launched Monday on the eve of the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment show, which runs through Thursday here. Meanwhile, Tiny Pictures' recently launched Radar service seeks to make sharing camera phone photos as easy as sending an e-mail or text message.
CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment is the second and smaller of two shows sponsored each year by CTIA, the wireless-industry trade group. Despite having a split-personality name, the show offers exhibits, presentations, and panels that cover all developments in wireless communications. Products and services to enable and support mobile communities have been a recurring theme at recent CTIA shows, and Loopt and Radar are two of the newer offerings.
Where Are You, and What Are You Doing?
Sam Altman, a sophomore at Stanford University, founded Loopt last year after developing software that allowed GPS-enabled Java phones to automatically answer the two questions he says people most commonly ask when they make a call or send a text message: Where are you, and what are you doing? Boost Mobile, Sprint Nextel's youth-oriented pay-as-you-go mobile phone service based on Nextel's GPS-enabled iDEN network, has worked out an exclusive agreement to market the service, which it calls Boost Loopt.
Boost Mobile customers can download Boost Loopt on its existing Java- and GPS-enable handsets. Once you activate the service, Boost Loopt can use GPS to locate you and others who subscribe to the service and have accepted your Boost Loopt invitation to list them as friends. The application can automatically update your location periodically in the background, or you can choose to update your location manually or set it at a fixed point.
When Boost Loopt is running, a map appears on screen showing your own location. Up and down hardware navigation controls on your handset cycle through your friends' locations, from nearest to farthest or from farthest to nearest. Left and right navigation buttons control the zoom view of the map.
Find Friends Fast
Like some instant messaging clients, Boost Loopt lets you scribble a short status message about what you're doing; the message appears alongside your name when friends use the program to check up on you. You can also broadcast messages to groups of friends (which you can define by name, using a desktop browser) or to all friends within a certain distance. Alternatively, you can use Boost Mobile's Walkie-Talkie push-to-talk service to connect with Loopt friends. (You can also view your Boost Loopt buddies on any connected PC via a standard Web browser.)
Boost Loopt lets you bookmark locations and define events to which you can then invite your friends. The service expects to introduce additional community mapping features--such as the ability to tag, blog about, and annotate locations with images and videos--later on.
Boost Loopt is free through the end of the year; after that, it will cost $3 a month (following a 30-day free trial).
Can You See Me Now?
Tiny Pictures' carrier-agnostic Radar service embraces the notion that people would share camera phone images with friends and loved ones more readily if doing so were easier. Other services let you share images via mobile blogs, but Tiny Pictures says that Radar is uniquely set up to permit immediate controlled access by small communities of friends and/or family members using almost any type of phone.
When you sign up for Radar at radar.net (the service is free), you get an e-mail address to which you can send your camera phone images and annotations, via either e-mail or MMS message. The images immediately become available to authorized friends, on the Web or on their cell phones, and they can add their own comments.
One distinctive aspect of Radar's service is that it displays thumbnails of your photos in a chronologically ordered horizontal strip, with the most recent photo first. Any phone with a mobile browser can display your images, but handsets that support Radar's downloadable Java application can show several strips at once, all scrollable to the right or to the left. If lots of your friends use the service, the application allows you to scroll up and down to see additional strips of photos.
Tiny Pictures CEO John Poisson envisions Radar customers using the service to conduct IM-like conversations based on annotated images. He says the company will charge a small fee for the Java handset application. In addition, Radar users must pay their carrier's usual fees for picture messaging or data plan use.