WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, is giving its over 1 billion users another reason to keep coming back to the app multiple times a day: live location sharing. WhatsApp, of course, already gives you the option to share your current location with other users, but that’s a static, one-time share. They key difference with live location sharing is that it is dynamic and updates your location in real time, even when WhatsApp is in the background.
“Live location is a way to share your location in a chat and the participants in that chat will then be able to see your real-time location as it updates on a map. [It’s] short-term in nature, it’s limited in duration,” Zafir Khan, Product Manager at WhatsApp told Gadgets 360 while giving a demo of the feature earlier this week.
Your location is shared at the chat level, which means you can share your live location in a one-on-one WhatsApp conversation or a group chat.
How does it work?
When you try to share your live location in a WhatsApp chat - by tapping the Attach icon on Android, or the Plus icon on the iPhone - you will be prompted to select the duration of time for which the share will be active. You can only choose from one of the preset options - 15 minutes, 1 hour (default), and 8 hours - and, optionally, add a comment. Khan said that these durations had been picked based on the common scenarios in which people are most likely to use WhatsApp live location sharing. Users can still choose to share a one-time, static location if they prefer.
You can manually stop sharing live location data within a chat at any given time. A new option in your Account Privacy settings will give you an overview of all WhatsApp chats you are sharing your live location in at the time.
Live location shares will show up in WhatsApp chats as thumbnails that show the initial location of the user and a ‘Live until’ time. Tapping ‘View live location’ will take you to a map view where you can see the current location of all the users who are presently sharing their location in that chat. You can switch to a Satellite/ Terrain view of the map if you desire, and even see live traffic data as an overlay, which sounds pretty convenient if you are waiting for someone.
Below the map you will see the names of the same users in a list view, with a timestamp that indicates the freshness of their location data. You can tap a name on the list or tap a profile picture on the map to zoom in to the location of a particular user where you will also see the margin of error (for example “Accurate to 50 metres”) for their location. You can tap the little (i) button next to the user to bring a pop-up that lets you communicate with them using WhatsApp in different ways.
In a WhatsApp group, you can bring up the group info and see all users that are sharing their location with the group at that point in time. This will be particularly useful in busier groups, as you won’t need to scroll up and try to find the message where the user originally shared their location.
“We hope that it provides utility in those scenarios where people are coordinating and meeting up in the real world. We give users control so they can stop sharing at any time and sharing a live location is just as secure as sending any other communications over WhatsApp in that it is end-to-end encrypted,” Khan said.
How does it stack up against the competition?
WhatsApp’s live location sharing implementation is pretty similar to Telegram’s, down to the choice of the three durations the users need to pick from. Facebook’s own Messenger service lets you choose locations with users in real time, but only for one hour at a time.
Apple’s iMessage lets you share your location with users for an hour, until the end of the day, or indefinitely, which is great for sharing your location at any give time with family and/ or close friends.
Google Maps - while not a messaging service, is perhaps the app you are most likely to be using when driving up to meet someone - added real time location sharing features earlier this year. Google Maps users can share their location with others for anywhere between 1 hour and ‘permanently’, though Maps uses links to share your location, which can then be shared further with others without your knowledge, raising privacy concerns.
We asked Khan if WhatsApp has plans to add the ability to permanently share your location with certain contacts, and he replied in the negative.
“For now, we are really focused on the short-term sharing use case. We think it addresses a lot of common challenges that people run into when they are in a chat scenario - we have no plans to expand that into long-term sharing at this time,” he said.
“However, this is software and we are always listening to feedback from users, so that’s something that we will continually evaluate,” Khan added.
Impact on battery life?
We asked Khan if WhatsApp users who actively use the new feature can expect an adverse impact on their phone’s battery life. He moved to allay such fears.
“Our engineering team spent a significant amount of time optimising battery and performance for this feature,” he explained. “We have special techniques to help conserve your battery when sharing live location. So it takes into account a number of different factors, such as how long you’ve been sharing your live location, whether someone on the other end who you are sharing with is actually looking at the map, your current battery level.”
“We take into account these factors and several others to determine how often to get a location update from your phone because by being intelligent about that we can help conserver some battery,” he added. “We are just launching this feature so this will be something that we also continuously optimise over time as we get more usage of the feature.”
When can you get WhatsApp live location sharing?
Live location sharing is now rolling out to Android and iOS users and it will be “globally available within the coming days”. If you are using WhatsApp Web and someone shares a live location with you, you will be shown a placeholder that will indicate that the live location can be seen on the phone.
Khan believes the feature will find wide traction among WhatsApp’s large user base. WhatsApp has over 1 billion daily active users, and over 1.3 billion monthly active users.
“When we decide to build a feature, it has to solve a problem that is experienced by over a billion people. And the problem that we are looking at with live location is what you might call the rendezvous problem or the problem of meeting up in the real world. Whether you are sharing a commute, or letting loved ones know you are safe, or meeting up with friends, these are experiences that are very common to us all.”