Although pioneering software such as Foursquare has made location sharing a popular gimmick, the ability to share our location with our friends and loved ones has been a tough nut to crack due to strict privacy controls inherent in mobile operating systems. Recently, Apple has begun to change all this in our iOS devices by allowing others a privileged look into our location data.
Apple's first foray into location sharing began with their now-deprecated MobileMe service, which offered the first "Find My Phone" app as an optional download for iPhone. This service allowed users to locate their lost or stolen phones, leading to world-wide ubiquitous stories of police tracking down criminals with the service. MobileMe came with a pretty hefty price tag; a MobileMe subscription cost $100 per year (Apple later included it free in iCloud), and its purpose wasn't to share your location with others as much as sharing it with yourself (and the police). "Find My Phone" was, however, was just a foreshadowing of things to come.
"Find My Friends" arrived as part of a sweeping set of new features for Apple's mobile devices. Much of the attention was stolen by Apple's simultaneous release of the iPhone 4S and its voice assistant Siri, as well as wireless syncing, both features of of the new iOS5. Like the app before it, "Find My Friends" was an optional download from Apple, which helped keep it out of the limelight.
I found "Find My Friends" was the far more interesting iOS5 feature. Whereas Siri and wireless sync were conveniences--shortcuts for things you could already do--"Find My Friends" allowed for the first true location sharing without requiring your "Friend" to do anything after initial opt-in.
With "Find My Friends", I could now tell when my partner left work, better timing our dinner and trips to the gym. Morning pile-up on the Beltway? "Find My Friends" told me she had arrived safely at the office.
When I first told my friends and coworkers about this, I was taken aback by their reaction. "You're tracking her?", they quipped, "Creepy!" (In fact, we both share our locations, and "Find My Friends" also has an option to hide your location at-will). I just can't comprehend why I'd want to hide my secret trip to the grocery store from my trusted friends. Oh, the sordid places some people must go..
However, location privacy--even among those who opt-in--isn't always that convenient. In a recent attempt at a surprise birthday trip, I realized it would be very difficult to hide my secret from my intended subject. Jailbreak apps such as FakeLocation and LocationHolic purport to fudge your GPS position, but these apps are only good for fooling your own phone as to where it is. That's great for stealing Foursquare mayorships, but it won't fool others about your location.
In fact, "Find My Friends" is also rumored to have led to at least one divorce, no doubt not the last story we'll hear about using the app to confirm philandering.
Nonetheless, my own family and I have no objection to sharing our locations. My mother seems to take delight in seeing where I go out to dinner from 500 miles away (perhaps feeling vicariously cosmopolitan). "Find My Friends" even gives you the option of sharing your location temporarily, which is convenient when meeting up with friends.
No doubt it won't be long before we'll be asking Siri if our spouse has left work yet, or we'll be receiving an automatic alert that our kids have arrived home (still not possible with iOS). Until then, "Find My Friends" will remain one of the top apps on my iPhone and I'll volunteer it should be on yours as well.