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Google Latitude for iPhone isn't great, but could be used to track down a stolen phone

July 24, 2009 |  1:01 pm

Technology enthusiasts pooh-poohed Google's first crack at porting Latitude — its locational social network for cellphones — to the iPhone, which the company launched on Thursday.

Many lambasted Apple for its request, as Google wrote on its blog, that Latitude be released as a Web application rather than a downloadable app. Because of the initial version's lack of key social networking features, ReadWriteWeb recommended users simply use Brightkite, a competing location app, instead.

While Latitude may be a comparatively weak choice for tracking your friend's every move, Google's implementation on the iPhone incidentally has a very valuable application (no pun intended). It could help you find your phone if it ever gets stolen.

Andrew Nystrom's location in Google Latitude. Hint: he's at his desk.

In a chat with the Times' senior social media producer, Andrew Nystrom, he says he uses Latitude not as a social network but as a tool to track his Blackberry in case he loses it. He doesn't broadcast his location to anyone except himself, meaning only he can log in from his computer and track the phone.

But the Blackberry version of Latitude -- along with Google's own mobile operating system, Android -- can sync your location even if the app isn't open. IPhones can't do that.

However, if your phone ever gets swiped, we might be able to trick the culprit into telling Google its location.

When launching Safari on the iPhone, the Web browser will automatically load the last page that was open. So, if you switch to the Latitude website each time before closing the browser, the next time anyone opens it to surf the Web, it will log the device's location.

After taking your phone, a crook is a lot more likely to launch the Web browser than he would a mysterious app called Latitude.

It's an annoying trick to work into your routine, but it's a small price to pay for the added insurance of maybe tracking down your phone if it ever gets stolen. An even larger price to pay would be the $99 a year Apple charges for the Find My iPhone feature, which is included with a MobileMe subscription.

-- Mark Milian

Follow my random thoughts on technology, the Internet and Web start-ups on Twitter @mmilian.