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These are the ambient social apps competing for SoLoMo dominance

sonar _ imageThe mission statements from the new class of ambient social apps run the gamut, but their basic intention is to connect people and to eradicate missed opportunities. How many times have you been a block away from your college roommate without either of you being the wiser? Well, the point is you have no idea how many times, but start using these types of apps and it’s probably more than you think.

In addition to finding these missed connections, so-called SoLoMo apps are also event-happy. At big shows, conference, and festivals, the spike in location services means they become a hive of activity.

Despite all the build-up, there’s been a lot of griping about these apps. Now that SXSW Interactive Week has come and passed, the criticisms are rolling in. The startups that were supposed to steal the spotlight were hyped to their limits in the anticipation for the show, and the general consensus has been that they didn’t deliver.

The available apps are too passive or too clunky or activity spikes only to completely drop off afterward – these are the common complaints. Lump in the fact that they suck battery life (which is quickly getting better) plus all your common privacy concerns, and I wouldn’t begrudge a user from being entirely turned off from the lot of SoLoMo apps.

However, what’s become increasingly clear is that there’s huge potential here, regardless of the various hang ups. The future of apps will include this type of background, location-awareness – but the jury’s out on whether or not it will be a standalone function or a feature woven into Facebook or Foursquare. I’m waiting to hear about an acquisition involving one of the below-mentioned companies – it just has to be on the horizon.

Until you’ve had one of these apps accomplish something for you, it’s easy to be critical. Just this weekend Highlight alerted me a friend who’d recently moved was in the same store that I was – without it, we would have missed each other. The execution of these apps has yet to be refined, but their purpose is compelling. Here’s a look at the major players in this space that you might want to get familiar with.

highlightHighlight

If you’re even slightly in the SXSW loop, you’ve heard of (and are possibly sick of hearing about) Highlight. The ambient reality app is easily the most popular of this crew and had an impressive launch that helped kick off the increasing interest in this market.

Pros: Highlight has a simple, intuitive, eye-pleasing UI. Even before you know what you’re doing with it, you know it’s fun to look at. That makes it easy to navigate as well – there’s no confusion to this app. It also lays out everything you need to know about this class of apps: when to put it down (right when you sign up for the app, it instructs you to back out because it won’t work just by staring at it), how to pause it, that you need to turn on your location settings.

highlightCons: Because Highlight is so simple, that means when the one thing that there is to do – meet people in the area – isn’t available, it gets boring. There also isn’t a utilitarian way to use the app (yet); when I sat down with Highlight creator Paul Davison, I asked if there would ever be a way to message people within 1000 square feet of you to ask common questions like “does anyone want to share a cab to the airport?” or “what Wi-Fi network is working for you?” – things you’d like answers to from the people around you but don’t necessarily want to shout out. Right now, this feature isn’t there, but he says there is potential. Highlight is also very “people” focused, which is all well and good until you find you want to search by location to see if anyone is around. 

Best if… : You want to really get the SoLoMo experience; if you want to dive in and really give this thing a shot, try Highlight.

glanceeGlancee

Glancee arguably takes second place in the SoLoMo name recognition category. Unlike Highlight, Glancee doesn’t use a map and time stamp to indicate where and when you were near a person, instead focusing on the user’s Facebook profile photo and little else. It will tell you how far away a person is or was, though.

Pros: At SXSW, the Highlight activity skyrocketed and Glancee didn’t seem to have as much going on. At home, however, there have been more results using Glancee than Highlight. It’s similarly easy to navigate, and you can start chatting with someone nearby you incredibly easily. The Radar feature tells you how many steps away a person is as well: a nice, accurate addition.

glanceeCons: Upon further inspection, some of that impressive activity looks like it’s inaccurate. According to Glancee, Robert Scoble was in my neighborhood yesterday (given that I’m in Portland, Oregon, I want to say this is false). The UI, though easy to navigate, leaves a great something to be desired. And like all apps in this genre, battery life and lack of users make it difficult to use consistently. Also, the lack of a map to show when I was close to someone is a little disappointing. There also isn’t a search option at all. 

Best if… : You like a simple user interface without many features. Glancee keeps everything you’d want to use in three tabs.

kismetKismet

There was some pre-SXSW hype about Kismet, largely because it has a bonus privacy feature that its competitors don’t. Instead of showing location details for everyone, Kismet only offers exact location if a person has checked in somewhere.

Pros: This privacy enhancement definitely sets it apart from the crowd. (Of course, you could argue that if you’re using a SoLoMo app, you aren’t particularly privacy-conscious.) Kismet even takes into account hte residential address you’re often at and then hides them (you can pause the other SoLoMo apps, but that isn’t something that they recognize on their own). Kismet is a more fully-featured app than its competitors – there’s a lot more going on. You can create meetings and events and check-in all from the app. You can also see how many times another user has reached out to others on Kismet, so you can avoid them if you want.

kismetCons: The biggest problem with Kismet is that it needs a bug fix. The app consistently asks me to move my phone in a figure eight to recalibrate. Also, given its lesser notoriety, fewer people are using it… meaning it’s sort of quiet. The UI is a little bit busy given that Kismet is trying to accomplish more than just letting you know who’s nearby, and there’s a trade-off there. 

Best if... : You want to try these apps out but can’t get past the privacy thing. 

sonarSonar

Sonar is yet another SoLoMo app that’s been gaining popularity under the radar. Sonar came to SXSW with some updates to show off, which included its new Android availability and focus on relevant users in your area (how many of your friends another user knows and interests you share).

Pros: Sonar leverages contacts from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Foursquare, whereas most competitors only use one or two of these networks. It means you have a larger pool of people to pull from, so you’re likely to see more activity. It also has a feature that its competitors don’t include: a focus on places in addition to people. Sonar takes into account what areas are particularly active, so if friends and friends-of-friends are all at a handful of venues, you’ll know about it. It’s all a little more orderly than we saw in other apps, showing you how many connections and interests you had with a person and where they came from.

sonarCons: Pulling from a large pool is good and bad – bad because it means you might not have as high quality of potential connections (some of us follow people or handles on Twitter we’d never want to see in person, for instance), so you could waste time dealing with this. Also, the fact that Sonar piggybacks on other social networks means it might be awkward to actually use the app to meet people. With Highlight and Glancee, everyone using it has opted in and knows if they’re using the app how people can find them. With Sonar, you’re just seeing check-ins from outside sites, so connecting with someone isn’t as natural. Unfortunately, Sonar is based off Foursquare information, so anyone without that won’t really be interested in this app. 

Best if… : You’re a Foursquare addict who loves the check-in; an event or location is a big part (just as big as the people there) of the experience for you. 

banjoBanjo

Banjo is a relative veteran in this new market. It launched last summer, long before the pre-SXSW SoLoMo chatter hit new heights. With a handful of updates and its relatively long-term status, this app has been able to keep up

Pros: This app has a lot in common with Sonar, including the fact that it integrates with a handful of accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Instagram. It keeps it a little more personal by only alerting you when friends check in around you, not quite the extended social circle that the new class of social ambient apps are working with. There is a possibility for this, however, because Banjo takes into account geo-tagged public posts. You aren’t limited to searching by people either — for instance, you can search locations or events people may have checked into. 

banjoCons: Since it’s similar to Sonar, is has similar issue. The more social networks, the noisier it can get. And meeting unknowns carries the same sort of discomfort. These two are better positioned for making use of your social networks’ location data rather than finding new people or having a totally seamless ambient experience. So while they might be more useful, they don’t have the same simplistic UI and natural discovery as competitors do.

Best if… : You’re a social media butterfly and want to leverage all the contacts you’ve collected.