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The Future of Mobile Social Networking

Whrrl combines activity recommendations with real-time location data.

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.

Places to go: In June, the startup Pelago is expected to release a version of Whrrl, its mobile social-mapping software, for the iPhone. Whrrl helps people locate friends or find things to do nearby, and it incorporates recommendations made by others in the user’s social network. The image above is an artist’s interpretation of what Whrrl might look like on an iPhone.

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.

While the possibilities presented by Whrrl are exciting to many, its mass appeal has yet to be established. First, the location data might not be fine-grained enough to be useful in all cases, so it could lead to false positives. The iPhone relies on data from Skyhook Wireless, a company that uses an enormous database of the locations of Wi-Fi base stations to locate a person within about 30 meters; GPS, however, could do much better. Also, Whrrl is most useful when members of the user’s social network actively contribute reviews. This requires that the user’s friends have smart phones–and the motivation to critique the places they go.

Still, the biggest obstacle faced by services like Whrrl is privacy concerns. Vengroff points out that users control whom the program lists as their friends, who can read their reviews, and who can see their physical locations. The software also offers a “cloaking” feature that lets a person become completely invisible to his or her entire Whrrl network.

“Generally, if you give people more control, they’re more willing to participate,” says Tanzeem Choudhury, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College. However, some people are still concerned about how long the company will store information about its customers’ locations. Choudhury says that these first-generation services will likely be used by small groups of early adopters who are more aware than most of potential privacy risks and will push companies to confront them.

Regardless, Choudhury and others are excited about the potential of services such as Whrrl. In the future, she suspects, location-based services will include more predictive features. For instance, instead of explicitly requiring you to write a review, the software might recognize how often you visit a restaurant and infer that it is a favorite. “Eventually, I think that a whole lot of exciting technology will emerge that figures out how to reduce the burden on the user,” Choudhury says. “There will always be the case where user input will be important, but when we find the sweet spot, that’s when I think it will take off.”

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