Birth of an App

So enough about me, what is this elusive MeetApp i keep referring to? Well the concept was something i came up with for a hackathon at the OTA (Over The Air) mobile developer conference held at Bletchley Park in September 2013. Now for the uninitiated, a hackathon is where developers get together and try to develop some pet project over the course of ~12 hours  and then present it the next day and compete for prizes. Or as a cynic might describe it as a conference where several companies with marketing budgets burning holes in their pockets sponsor categories so developers test their APIs for them in order to compete for prizes worth far less then their average day rate. What everyone can agree on is it’s a chance for developers to get together, drink beer and try out the left-field ideas that they’ve come up with but haven’t had the opportunity to work on in their day jobs.

MeetApp was one such idea. I actually originally conceived of it as an add-on to the Boomtown festival app i was working on – a friend finder feature, but i realised it could potentially be useful on its own. nokia-5140-compassIt’s only when i started thinking about it that I realised that i’d actually wanted this sort of functionality as far back as 2005, when i remember getting excited about the Nokia 5140,
which was one of the first mobile phones with GPS support (it was actually sold as an aftermarket Express-On cover to the phone) and promised the ability to send your location to anyone you want in an SMS. I never ended up getting that phone, but even now that pretty much every phone has a GPS unit in it, it’s still not as easy as it should be to send somebody your location.

There are lots of location-aware apps, but they all suffer from one or more issues:

  1. There are battery life issues for apps that track you in the background. Glympse is a fantastic app to let somebody track your location for a set period of time, but if you’ve sent somebody a Glympse, better hope your phone is plugged in to your car because otherwise it’s likely to be dead by the time you arrive, possibly after burning a hole in your pocket.
  2. There are privacy issues for background tracking. This is probably the biggest issue for many. Lots of people don’t like the idea of their location being broadcast to everyone they know, or potentially don’t know, or even are wary of google or apple themselves knowing that. These fears may be somewhat unfounded, since privacy measures are built into these apps, but that fear may be real enough that it turns people off.
  3. Some are not cross platform. I’ve heard lots of good things about Find My Friends on iOS, but since i don’t have an iPhone, that’s a non-starter for me.
  4. You don’t alway know the accuracy of the location you’re sending. This became quite apparent to me when I was involved with a city-centre location-based game using twitter. There is  tick-box next to the post button to include your location in the tweet, but there’s literally no way of knowing whether it’s sending your current, reasonably accurate location, or the 1km approximate location you were at 15 minutes ago
  5. Almost all solutions require login of some sort, along with the issues around remembering passwords and the worry about whether that company intends to sell your information or not down the line….
  6. All require a mobile internet connection. Now, this is an issue which is rife in the mobile industry – it seems most app developers seem to assume always on ubiquitous connectivity. This may be the situation someday though it certainly is not the case today, nor will it be for some time to come (if ever). The situation has improved somewhat in the past couple of years, with more developers implementing loss-of-connectivity countermeasures, but it’s still far from common. I think this is mainly because it needs to be specifically built in, and it’s not always straightforward to test. As an aside, i once had to test an app for players of golf, and was getting reports of strange errors when they lost and then regained connectivity, but was unable to reproduce it myself. I needed a Faraday cage big enough to fit me and the phone inside it, which is not easy to come by. Fortunately, my local pub, The Duke of York performed admirably in this regard ;-)

MeetApp is different. When you press the button to share a location, bam, it’s ready – no internet required. It encodes the location, the time, the accuracy of the fix, your name, the place name and the address. And you can send it to anybody, by any means you like and no matter what device they have, they’ll be able to see your location. If they have MeetApp installed they’ll get the best experience, but if they don’t, then they’ll see a web page with a google map on it, with a button to open it in Google Maps, or with whatever mapping app is suitable for their platform.

So how does MeetApp address the areas where other apps come up short? Well i’m glad you asked…

  1. MeetApp goes out of its way to be kind to your battery. There’s no background tracking. When the screen is off, or the app is in the background, MeetApp is off. When the screen is on, MeetApp will do everything it can do get you the best location it can as fast as it can. If the locations it receives stop improving in accuracy, it will deactivate the GPS. But it will use Google’s activity recogniser to work out if you’re moving, and if you are, it will keep GPS on to continue bringing you the most up to date location as you move.
  2. There are no privacy issues with MeetApp because we don’t collect any information. We don’t ask for personal details or passwords, we don’t know who you’re sending locations to. And if your recipient has MeetApp installed, your location won’t even touch any server anywhere.
  3. I’m building MeetApp for Android, and I’m hoping to convince one of my colleagues to make the iOS version. For those who are on other platforms, the web page is still useful!
  4. All locations are shown with an accuracy circle integrated. And if the accuracy of the GPS fix is too low, you’re able to manually correct it by tapping on the map directly
  5. No logins. No details to sell. Which is one reason why this project wouldn’t interest any VC. More on that in another blog post…
  6. As long as you have some medium to send the location (e.g. SMS) mobile internet is completely optional. Even when receiving a location, you may not be able to load the map tiles, but you can still follow the arrow to find your friend. I’ve also added NFC capability so you can transfer a location by touching your phones together, e.g. without any network whatsoever. An edge case, sure, but imagine you’re at a festival and you need to direct somebody to where your car is parked – MeetApp’s got you covered.

So there you go. I’ll continue in a later post to describe what i made on the day of the hackathon, what I released as the first public version, and what’s in the works for this year, but in the meantime: What do you think? Would this be useful to you? Let me know in the comments. :-)


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