Looking for your friend? If the people in your social circle use Plazes, a Swiss location-tracking startup, they may not be too hard to find. Plazes is an online community where people post and update their location via the Internet or text messaging on cell phones. The company has been around since 2004, but in the past month, it has revamped its product, making it simpler to use and letting people upload pictures of different locales and add reviews.
The idea of updating friends about your activities and location has gained traction over the past couple of years, and a number of Web-based services have cropped up to support it. Twitter is a micro-blogging service that lets people update others about their activities from their phone, a website, or an instant-messaging client. Jaiku has much of the functionality of Twitter, but it lets users add the element of location to their posts. Dodgeball, owned by Google, is a text-message-based service for posting location information for friends. And Sprint provides a service called Loopt that enlists global positioning sensors to locate users, and it displays a map of their whereabouts on mobile phones.
“There is a sense that it’s important to find friends and share location with each other,” says Mor Naaman, a research scientist at Yahoo. Indeed, an increasingly common opening question in cell-phone conversations is “Where are you?”
Felix Petersen, cofounder of Plazes, hopes that his service will be the easiest way for people to answer that question. When Plazes was relaunched last month, the company introduced some changes to try to make the service accessible to nongeeks. Initially, people could only “plaze” themselves using a computer at a wireless hot spot. Today, they can also text-message Plazes with their location. People can now upload pictures of places, rate locations, and subscribe to people or places to get any new, related posts. In addition, Plazes lets users post their location to Google Earth and integrate it into blogs and Facebook profiles.
One of the values of Plazes, says Petersen, is that it can act as a more personalized recommendation system. Yelp is a service that lets people post reviews of restaurants and stores, but in general, the people who write the reviews aren’t friends of the people reading them, so it’s hard to gauge which reviews to take to heart. With Plazes, a person can learn what a friend thought of a place, or simply how often he or she visits. Additionally, since a user’s location information (either present or future) can be broadcast, friends can chime in with suggested places to visit nearby. Before a recent trip to San Francisco, Petersen posted this future location to Plazes, and his friends helped him find an inexpensive, charming hotel.