For many smartphone users, the GPS facility is about more than just finding your place on a map. It’s routinely used for covert tracking of your location in order to direct targeted advertising at you, promoting nearby businesses who have paid for the privilege.
Or your GPS coordinates are recorded as you roam around with your phone, to help harvest the location of private Wi-Fi networks that you pass, as part of an ongoing project to crowd-source more data for Wi-Fi-assisted geolocation.
In contrast to Google Android phones though, the Apple iPhone does not take its user's GPS data to refine Google’s database of domestic Wi-Fi networks.
Apps that advertise at you can still potentially discover your geolocation. Unlike Android though, this can be disabled: in the iPhone’s Location Services settings, just switch off Location-based iAds. Or stop installing apps that have built-in advertising.
Find My Friends: restoring the balance
Restoring the balance to make GPS something useful to the phone owner rather than the phone maker are apps like Apple’s Find My iPhone. Free for all users, it helps in locating your iPhone if lost or stolen, by letting you log in from another phone or a PC and view your device on a map. Adding to this service now is the more sophisticated Find My Friends.
Whereas Find My iPhone might only be used in emergencies, Find My Friends is a more social service that works on just iPhones and iPads. It enables you to follow the location of designated friends who also have an iDevice running iOS 5.
With Find My Friends installed, you log in once with your Apple ID, then send out an invitation to your chosen friends. Once accepted, their position is shown on a map on your device. At the same time, anyone you're linked to can also see where you are.
The possible applications for Find My Friends may become more evident with a little use. You can use it to help rendezvous with friends or family at unfamiliar meeting points.
Or check on late-running friends, to see how far away they are from you.
And a short-term connection can be established, for example adding just one evening’s worth of geolocation security for a night out on the town.
Summer festivals and highly populated outdoor events are another prime use case.
Using Find My Friends
The interface is a little unusual looking, taking a light-brown stitched leather look not dissimilar to the revised iCal application in OS X Lion.
From the first tab, All Friends, you can select an overview map showing all linked friends’ present locations. Or you can home into just one person, with further options there to make a Facetime call to them, or select Directions to receive suggested routes to travel directly to them.
From the Temporary tab, you can send out an invite to someone you may not necessarily need a longer connection with, such as a business colleague. At the point of sending the invitation, you select length of time for the service – 24 hours by default but easily adjusted using the trademark iOS drums to spin up a different time.
The third tab for Me shows your current address and lists all your followers. And also here you’ll find a most useful switch: Hide from Followers. With one swipe of this screen button, you can switch off the service and take yourself off the radar.
In our tests, Find My Friends usually had a similar level of accuracy as the phone’s built-in Maps app, tapping into the same Google maps service to show either a streetmap, satellite or hybrid view of the area.
As with the usual GPS mapping facility, a circle of confidence is often shown, denoting an imprecise fix, typically when trying to get a fix on someone in a large building. This can sometimes get refined after a few minutes, with the circles decreasing in size as your location is more accurately determined.
On one occasion though, we travelled 12 miles across London, and could clearly see ourselves accurately fixed on the FMF map – yet a linked Follower still saw our blob as not having even left home yet.
Another incident saw a temporary Friend firmly located in north London when they had long since travelled south of the river.
The Find My Friends app is available for iPad too, with a slightly different layout to make the most of available screen space. On the iPad version you can see the various maps on the same screen as the All, Temporary and Me tabs.