When Steve Jobs strides onstage at Apple’s annual developers conference on June 9, many will be expecting fireworks. Some industry analysts think Jobs will announce an iPhone upgrade, one that takes advantage of faster networks and includes new hardware, perhaps a GPS receiver. Jobs is also expected to demonstrate some third-party iPhone applications, available in June, which could include games that use the phone’s accelerometer as a control, new mapping software, and quick ways to update profiles on social networks such as Facebook or MySpace.
One rising company that’s hoping for a mention during the Steve Jobs Show is Pelago, a startup that recently garnered $15 million from funders, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Pelago will soon offer a version of its software, called Whrrl, for the iPhone. The software enables something Pelago’s chief technology officer, Darren Erik Vengroff, calls social discovery: using the iPhone’s map and self-location features, as well as information about the prior activities of the user’s friends, Whrrl proposes new places to explore or activities to try.
“If you think about your day-to-day life and how you discover things around you and places to go, to a great extent the source of that information is your friends,” Vengroff says. With Whrrl, a user can “look through the eyes of friends and see the places they find compelling.” The software begins with the user’s position on the iPhone’s map and indicates a smattering of nearby establishments. If the user’s friends have visited and rated these places, the software indicates that as well. The map also shows the positions of nearby friends who have enabled a feature that lets them be seen by others.
Whrrl may turn out to be the leading edge of a wave of new location-based applications. “I think we’re going to see a lot of new players showing up in this space,” says Kurt Partridge, a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center who works on a similar project called Magitti. “Part of the reason,” he says, “is the universal availability of GPS or access to location, which hasn’t been available to application writers before.” The iPhone and Nokia’s N95 phone are two examples of phones that provide location data to computer programmers. Google’s forthcoming Android mobile operating system may also help push location-based applications onto the market.
The idea of community-generated reviews is, of course, not new. The popular recommendation service Yelp, for example, is already integrated into Google Maps. And the concept of locating friends using a mobile phone has also been around for years; Loopt, a service that runs on Sprint and Boost Mobile phones, is one of the most common examples. Whrrl, which can also be downloaded onto BlackBerry Pearl, Curve, and Nokia N95 smart phones, is commonly compared to both types of service. But it differs from either in that it combines aspects of both. In addition, Vengroff explains, Whrrl has collected details on establishments in 17 cities, which allows the service to provide fine-tuned local search, letting the user narrow down the hunt for, say, a café to one that has outdoor seating and vegetarian options and is recommended by at least one friend.