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At SXSW, apps buzz is location, location, location

The South By Southwest Interactive Conference helped launch Twitter and Foursquare, and at this year's gathering, no topic is more buzzed about than similar apps like Glancee, Ban.jo, Sonar, Intro and Kismet.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The South By Southwest Interactive Conference helped launch Twitter and Foursquare, and at this year's gathering, no topic is more buzzed about than similar apps like Glancee, Ban.jo, Sonar, Intro and Kismet.

Walk into some panel discussions at SXSW, and you'll hear someone saying such services, known as social discovery apps, are the future.

There are variations to these location-based social networks, but the basic premise is to link a profile and connections of a social network like Facebook, with the locations logged in mobile phones.

"The way that we find these people and learn about these people is, and always has been, horribly random and inefficient," exclaims Paul Davison, founder and CEO of the location-based social network startup Highlight, marveling at centuries of missed opportunities. "We don't realize how bad it is because it's always been that way, and we just accept it."

Location has been a part of networks, like Foursquare, that is centered on a user checking in at a place such as a bar or a restaurant. Most of these new apps, which all launched recently, track ambient locations with permission and don't require constant action.

Such apps passively monitor location, running in the background (and therefore using precious battery life) and sending notifications when Facebook connections are nearby. Different apps weigh connection differently, but they pull from factors like interests, life history and similar friends.

Privacy concerns will be a major factor in the popularity of social discovery. Many are wary of distributing their location to the wrong people, and stalking concerns will surely keep many away.

Glancee founder Andrea Vaccari said finding the right balance of public and private information will be the key element that separates one app from the pack. Glancee doesn't display exact locations but uses approximate locators, like "10 miles (16 kilometers) away."

At SXSW, some dozen startups were fighting to be the darling of the conference. Vaccari says a longer-term perspective is necessary for the widespread use of such a new technology, and he's focused more on having Glancee catch on in cities besides New York and San Francisco.

"Our belief is that what we think of as serendipity — the occasional encounter where both people share something really important to them in common — it's not as rare as we think it is," says Vaccari. "We want to change that."

Ban.jo has been around longer than some startups and has, it says, a larger network of users than all the new apps combined. It pulls connections from Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram and others and relies on public check-ins, rather than exposing user location.

Damien Patton founded Ban.jo after a missed connection of a nearby friend at an airport.

"I decided at that moment that that was never going to happen to me again," says Patton. "That's why I started programming literally that day."

Some apps are more specialized, such as Intro and Mingle, which are business-centric. Joel Simkhai founded the gay dating app Grindr, he said, to "show me the gay guy around me, and I want to talk to him."

Many apps debuting ahead of and at SXSW are just starting out. SXSW interactive director Hugh Forrest — while joking about the appeal of knowing about and therefore avoiding a nearby Red Sox fan — cautioned that buzz among the early-adopting techies of SXSW doesn't always transfer outside of the conference.

"Sometimes the trap of an event like SXSW is the hardcore geeks can totally love a technology but it's maybe at this point — or will always be — too technical or too hard for the mainstream to use," says Forrest.

But many see location as having enormous potential.

Geoloqi, co-founded by Amber Case, was once used as an app for Foursquare to make automatic check-ins. Case, who is a keynote speaker at SXSW, uses it to turn on lights when she gets home, and turn them off when she leaves.

Geoloqi makes a host of different location notifications that could have myriad consequences for consumers and businesses. Users can ask for notification reminders ("Don't forget the tomato sauce!") when arriving at a destination.

Says Case: "We haven't even scratched the surface of what we can do in terms of location."

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Online:

http://www.glancee.com/ http://ban.jo/ http://highlig.ht