Saturday, October 25, 2008

BrightKite for iPhone.

The fact it took BrightKite and Loopt as long as it did to distribute their iPhone apps must be some indication as to how niche the market continues to be. That's a bummer because location is going to be the next axis upon which the web tilts. GPS devices in rental cars are the first sign of more of the general population being exposed to apps that do cool things with latitude, longitude (and eventually altitude). However, we're still a long way away from "mainstream" geocoding devices/applications.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I blogged about Loopt's iPhone app; I'm very impressed with Loopt's implicit take on my location, layered with my personal description of my location (sort of akin to BrightKite's "placemark"), it's a model that better fits in my brain. Tried as I did to suck my BrightKite friends into Loopt, I couldn't. I'd say 10% of the folks I invited are still using Loopt today. 60% of them like BrightKite's iPhone/app model better, and the remaining 40% were friends I was trying to introduce to mobile/location apps on their iPhones, and they're simply not interested (or just had an allergic reaction to Loopt).

BrightKite for iPhone
BrightKite's got some UI hurdles to get over. If you're wondering what the first two buttons you see do, checkout this description. Even my friends who were telling me how great BK was couldn't tell me what those buttons did. I still don't know what all the little "lock" icons on the screens mean. Those are all usability/first-version issues that are easily fixed; which is a good thing.

What I struggle with in general with BrightKite is it's take on "checking in." They've catered to those who want explicit, delineated, boundaries around sharing their location with others. That's my primary gripe with BrightKite for iPhone; I want an app that just "checks me in" implicitly (maximum one button click). That said, with geo-location in particular, most users do indeed want explicit control over sharing their location. I'm an aberration in this respect, and I know that.

Implicit & Explicit
The issue of whether to actually share one's location implicitly or explicitly aside (the case can easily be made for that to be an explicit operation), BrightKite's other features need to become implicit.

A toggle for auto "Find me" goes too far in trying to comfort the user. The raison d'etre for the app is to "find me" and because I have to explicitly share my location, just go ahead and "find me." I'll decide whether or not I want to have my location shared. Exposing this as a top-level UI element adds clutter and confusion to the experience. Bury this down in settings/preferences if users really want the option to turn it on/off.

I like the "snap to" concept, but again, to me that's just something that should "just work" and not be an explicit toggle that I can turn on/off. If you're trying to pinpoint me, and you have an idea of where I am, just use that idea. If I have to manually correct it, I will. Obviously use my placemarks as the first order match (which BrightKite confirmed they're doing already), but the relationship between "pick a place" (in the iPhone app) and "placemarks" (on the website) is unclear.

Proprietary messaging in apps today, particularly phones, is extraneous. Just direct SMS in the future please; no need to reinvent this wheel.

Where's the map? A social application based on geo-location screams for the primary UI metaphor to be map driven.

In conclusion...
All in all, the top half of the default screen of the BrightKite app, the "I am..." section, should just go away. All of that can be implicitly derived, either based on my past experiences (e.g. check-ins), or via matching on the backend. I think Loopt has nailed the UI metaphors and the right level of location/sharing abstraction. I think BrightKite is providing lots of privacy-level/visibility and control. Undoubtedly users are asking for that control, but privacy can be a rat hole and I'd be careful building an app around giving the user everything they want on this topic. Loopt's taking some risks in this regard, but I think they're the right risks. Ultimately the end-user will decide.

For now, I'm using both services, and I suspect I'll have to leave Loopt in the ditch pretty soon because most of my friends are using BrightKite. These are social applications and their usefulness is primarily driven by how many of your friends are using them. I'm just stoked that there's competition in this space. Amazing things will come from location enabled applications.

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