Find My Friends
You’ve long been able to locate your iOS devices, thanks to Find My iPhone, but alongside the introduction of iOS 5, Apple announced a new location-based app: Find My Friends. Now instead of just finding your device, you can find your friends’ devices—and presumably their users—as well.
The idea behind Find My Friends isn’t exactly new. Services like Loopt and Google Latitude have been letting people share their locations for years. (Heck, I even came up with an idea like this more than a decade ago, in college, when I wanted to find my friends during free periods; sadly, most folks weren’t carrying personal, network-connected GPS devices those days.)
For the most part, Find My Friends works like any other social network: You send requests to your friends, asking them to share their locations with you, and vice versa. Of course, you can accept or deny requests as you see fit, and the relationships are not necessarily mutual—that is, just because a friend allows you to see her location doesn’t mean that she can see yours; she’ll need to send you a separate request.
Once you have some friends to find, you can view all of their locations on a map, or browse through them individually. And because Find My Friends takes advantage of one of the multitasking features introduced in iOS 4, your friends don’t need to be actively running the app for their locations to be updated.
In addition to viewing friends’ locations, you can access their contact information, send them an iMessage, initiate a FaceTime call, or get directions to their current location. When you’re scrolling through your list of friends, a mile-marker icon next to each shows how far away they are, though if they’re more than 99 miles away, the app won’t give you any more precision.
Speaking of precision, while Find My Friends is pretty good at nailing down the general vicinity of your contacts, it’s not always as good at locating them on a map as it is at finding your own location. For example, on one occasion, it claimed that a friend and I—who were seated next to each other at a concert—were a quarter mile apart. But it usually seems to be pretty accurate, even if the purple dot representing your friends is often surrounded by an aura of uncertainty. (This suggests that it’s relying more on the less power-hungry Wi-Fi and cell tower location methods, rather than forcing a constant GPS lookup.)
Given that imprecision, Find My Friends attempts to correct for—and simplify—that issue by labeling locations, such as Home, Work, School, and any custom labels you create. Labels represent a sort of bubble, so even if Find My Friends thinks I’m one house away from my actual home, or across the street, it still reports my location as “Home.” When others view a location you’ve labeled, they’ll see that designation. (You can also assign your own labels to your friends’ locations, which will supersede any labels that they’ve defined.)
Some locations are labeled by nearby points of interest—for example, I noticed that several of my Macworld colleagues were apparently hanging out on the Bay Bridge, which is adjacent to our San Francisco office.
There’s still a certain amount of reticence around location-sharing social networking, due to privacy concerns. Apple’s taken that into consideration, and provided a variety of ways to handle it. First, and most obviously, Find My Friends is an opt-in service; you need to download it from the App Store. It also uses iOS’s location services, so you can disable it under Settings -> Location Services. Plus, not only can you disable it on your child’s iOS device under Settings -> General -> Restrictions -> Location services, but you can also control whether or not your kids can make changes to the existing setup—say, for example, that you want the ability to track them, but not for them to disable the feature, or add or remove additional contacts.
Within the app itself, there’s a prominent Hide from Followers slider under the Me tab—flip it and you go incognito until you reactivate it. And every time you launch the app, it prompts you to enter your password, unless your device has a passcode enabled, to prevent prying eyes.
This control also extends to perhaps the best feature of Find My Friends: event-based sharing. If you’re visiting a location with a bunch of people—Disneyland, say, or a shopping excursion downtown—you can create a temporary location-sharing event by tapping the Temporary tab of Find My Friends, inviting the friends with whom you want to share, and setting an end date and time. Find My Friends will give you a map of those people’s locations, and even lets you easily send group iMessages to the participants. (According to Find My Friend’s help documents, you can have up to ten temporary events, each with a maximum of 50 friends.)
Note that, unlike in the rest of Find My Friends, temporary events are mutual, meaning everybody in the group will automatically be able to see the locations of everybody else in the group. But when the clock ticks over to the designated time, the event immediately stops, and all participants will once again be hidden (except for those with whom you normally share your location and vice versa). You can also add and remove friends from the event at any time.
One of the advantages of Find My Friends enjoys over its competitors is deep integration with Apple services. While other apps may be able to access contact information or hand off to iMessage, Find My Friends has one unique feature those apps can’t yet employ: Siri integration. iPhone 4S owners can use the virtual assistant to display a friend’s current location (“Where’s Sarah?”), show you nearby friends, or even hide or stop hiding your location from your contacts. For nearby friends, it seems to only register those within close proximity; my closest friend was 24 miles away, and didn’t show up. As a reader pointed out, you can use Siri to get directions to your friend's location, but you have to ask Siri where they are first, and then ask for directions.
If there’s one tangle in Find My Friends, it may be Apple’s account management system. Similar to the system Apple uses for FaceTime, iMessage, and Game Center, you log in with an Apple ID, but you’ll need to add any additional email addresses via Apple’s Apple ID website. If someone tries to add you on an email that’s not configured, a message will be sent to that address, instead of showing up in Find My Friends’s Requests tab. You’ll also want to make sure you’re using the same address for Find My Friends and iMessage if you want to send message from the former. It’d be nice if Apple could simplify this a bit, but it’s also understandable that users may not want to use the same address for everything.
One other place the app missteps is with the strange stitched-leather user interface. While it doesn’t impede the app’s functionality, the skeuomorphic aesthetic is puzzling: It looks similar to the iPad’s Calendar app, but where that program’s look and feel is clearly inspired by a physical desk calendar, Find My Friend lacks any sort of real-world analog. As such, it can feel distracting at first, though over time, you get accustomed to it.
The idea of sharing one’s locations evokes strong reactions, and Apple’s done an adroit job of addressing the concerns that many have about such technology without rendering its app completely toothless. Find My Friends may still not be for everybody, but for those who use it, it turns out to be not only handy but surprisingly fun.
[Senior associate editor Dan Moren is sad that Find My Friends kind of ruins hide-and-go-seek.]