Google quietly changes the world again

How two location services launched this week will transform how we all live

Do you remember where you were the day they unveiled Facebook? No? How about Twitter? Amazon.com? Google Search?

Massive, culture-shifting technologies are almost never recognized as such when first announced. They seem unimportant and peripheral at first, but later we find ourselves relying on them every day.

One such technology was rolled out this week. In all the noise and info-clutter of CES, with its endless announcements of new netbooks, smartbooks, tablets and 3-D TVs -- none of which will change how people live -- few noticed Google's unveiling Thursday of two related location services called "Near me now" and "Explore right here."

"Near me now" is an option that appears in a Google search if you have the right kind of phone (an iPhone or Android phone). It uses the built-in GPS to rank searches based on proximity. So, for example, if you search for "pizza," "Near me now" ranks results based on how close they are to you. Nice, but not that exciting.

"Explore me now" sounds innocent enough in Google's description: "Find out more about a place 'right here' with just a few clicks." The idea is that you can check out the street or the neighborhood to see what restaurants, coffee joints and movie theaters are nearby, and get quick access to reviews, operating hours and showtimes -- that sort of thing.

No big deal, right? Wait until you hear where all this is headed.

Google is building HP's 'Cooltown'

Back in 2001, several stories hit the 'net about the development of a concept called "Cooltown Notes." The concept was developed and prototyped by a Bristol University student named Alistair Mann, who collaborated with Hewlett-Packard's labs in Bristol, UK. Part of the larger "Cooltown" concept at HP, the Notes idea was that messages could be associated with location.

Let's say you eat at a restaurant, and want to tell random strangers how great it was. Just step outside, launch an application, and type your review. When you "post it," you would conceptually post it to that location, invisibly in thin air. In reality, it would simply be made accessible to others standing outside the restaurant. Eventually, they imagined, there would be a whole parallel Internet of user-generated content based on location.

A year and a half ago, I wrote in a blog post about the development of "virtual graffiti" or "virtual sticky notes" in development at a variety of research laboratories, including at Microsoft, Siemens, Cornell University, the University of Edinburgh and Duke University.

All these companies and universities invested millions in the development of ideas without turning them into products. Google is the company that's rolling it out for real.

In typical Google fashion, they're moving into the space in a stepwise, limited way. For example, "Near me now" and "Explore right here" are available only on two phone platforms and only in the U.S. Once they work out initial kinks, they'll almost certainly increase the number of phones and countries. They'll also no doubt expand the kind of content that can be associated with location, from private notes to store coupons to emergency messages. Everything is public now, but Google will likely add private and social options in the future.

Rather than set up an entirely new and parallel commenting infrastructure, Google simply links people to restaurant reviews and similar kinds of user-generated data. In fact, almost every aspect of these two new services already exists, from the location awareness in browsers to the ability to rank results by proximity.

Where it's all going

Google sells advertising. As generic advertising to the masses loses its value, context-sensitive advertising will gain in value. Sometime soon, Google will likely add to its location-aware search both advertising and alerts.

Picture yourself walking down the street and, if you've opted in, your phone will beep. Look at the phone, and you'll see a virtual coupon for a free latte at the Starbucks you're in front of. Walk in, show them the phone and get your latte. Keep walking down the street. Your phone beeps again. Your friend Stewart was here two years ago, and left all his family and friends a message that says this is the very spot where he met his wife. Finally you arrive home, and as you're walking up your front walk, the phone beeps again. UPS came by to deliver a signature-required package. Nobody was home, but if you "click here now" they'll try to deliver it by 6 p.m.

Imagine being able to filter just about any online content based on your current location. See only Twitter tweets sent from this location. See all Flickr photos uploaded from this location. See the Wikipedia entry about this location. And a thousand other things we can't imagine yet.

As it does with so many other services, Google gently eases us into transactions where we give up a little privacy and allow Google to show us some advertising. In exchange, we get cool free services.

"Near me now" and "Explore right here" are useful now, but will transform human culture later on.

So where were you when Google rolled out this culture-changing technology? Don't worry if you don't remember. Google knows.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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