Loopt Crosses a Line in the Sand for Location and Privacy

Location app Loopt, which has fallen behind Foursquare in attention, is trying to get more traction with an update today that features more Facebook integration and better messaging and recommendations for local places. But the most interesting thing, I think, is that it is incorporating background location updates, allowing you to alert a select group of friends about your location without having to open the app. This falls into what I recently wrote about the dawning era of persistant location, where you don’t check-in for deals or to share your location, your app does it for you.

Loopt 4.0, which is available on iPhone (S AAPL) initially and will come to Android (S GOOG) later this month, gives a glimpse at how other major location companies may incorporate background location sharing, which I believe will be deployed in some form or another by almost every location service. Loopt allows you to select a small group of friends, who will get automatic friend alert updates on your location. It’s a smaller subset compared to the rest of your friends, who will see your location updated only when you check in to a place. Users will also be able to set alerts for their closest friends when they come within 1, 2, 5 or 10 miles of them.

Sam Altman, CEO of Loopt, said by leveraging the background location API for iPhone, Loopt allows close friends to share their persistant location. He said it’s not for sharing with everyone and he expects that passive location sharing will work alongside check-ins to create a hybrid approach to location. For public location sharing and to cash in on deals, users will still use the familiar check-in. But for close friends, it makes sense to share location automatically. “Very few people want to share their persistant location with all their friends but there aren’t many people who don’t want to share with at least some friends,” Altman said.

Persistant location is going to be tricky to get right. In its best form, it can connect you with friends that happen to be nearby in real time. Or it can fulfill that well worn example of delivering a Starbucks (S SBUX) coupon as you pass by the store. But done wrong, persistant location, can lead to spam coupons that pops up as you move around. Or it can turn into stalking if shared with too many people. Google’s Latitude, which featured similar functionality, touched off stalking concerns last year. Right now, check-ins work because they’re a conscious decision by a user to share their information and reap whatever rewards accompany that. That’s why I think Loopt’s approach makes sense as a first step. It takes one of the best aspects of persistant location — spontaneously encountering friends when you’re out and about — and separates it from other functions. But over time, I expect deals will also be added because they’re popular with users, who may not be motivated to check-in just to share their location but would like a coupon or offer based on their location.

I’m curious if that happens, how location based-services like Foursquare, Gowalla and others respond. The check-in and the deals are often connected now, but with persistant location, location companies will have the ability to check in users publicly or privately and give them deals automatically. Will they give users the ability to do break out the deal from the public check-in with passive location sharing? That may be more popular with deal-oriented users but would turn these location services into less of a social network and more of just a local deal service like a Shopkick. It’s still early days with persistant location but these are going to be interesting questions to answer in the coming year.

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