This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on August 8, 2011
by Larry Magid
Technology makes it possible for us to be in touch with people all around the world, but we live locally. We can get our news from BBC or Al-Jazeera and listen to radio stations from any continent. But when we want traffic information while driving, we turn to local radio stations, and it’s our local newspapers (or their websites) that keep us up to date with what’s happening in our community.
The same is true with our offline lives. Our coffee beans may come from Columbia or Ethiopia, but when we want to buy a steaming hot cup of the brew, we visit a local coffee shop.
One of those coffee shops is the Palo Alto Cafe in Silicon Valley, where I occasionally stop by for a cappuccino and conversation with a group of neighbors who show up most mornings. Two people I sometimes run into there are Sebastian Andreatta and Gary Geschwind, who met each other at the cafe five years ago and, over coffee one day, came up with the idea for a new smartphone app called Bitflx because “it was time to do something cool with our smartphones other than play games and get wrong directions,” according to their website.
Geschwind is a photography buff and Andreatta a veteran of other telecommunication startups. Together the two launched a company and commissioned an iPhone app that allows people to use their phone to shoot video in their local communities to share with other smartphone users and on the Web.
The idea is for people to shoot videos of things that they might want to share with others in their local community, such as an exciting play at a high school football game, a traffic accident that’s snarling up traffic on a local highway or the presentation of a dynamite meal at a local restaurant.
The app, said Andreatta, is all about time and place. It’s not competing with YouTube, which is more about archiving video for global access. Bitflx is more like your local news stations that focuses on what is happening right now, where you live.
“Being able to communicate in a more meaningful way with the people around you, the friends that are nearby, the neighborhood, can be pretty powerful,” Andreatta said.
In addition to using video to comment on and document things around you, he also envisions “a news reporting/neighborhood angle,” including using the service to help find the owner of a lost dog or bicycle, or letting neighbors see that the garbage truck is down the street, so it might be a good time to bring out the trash can or move your car.
The app, which currently works on iPhones and the newest iPads and iPod touch devices, allows you to take a video and quickly post it to their site, and also gives you the option to share it on your Facebook profile. The app also has a video viewer that displays pins on a map. A purple pin designates your current location, blue pins show recent videos posted by your friends, green pins show videos posted by local merchants and red pins show videos from others. You can also view by time and date.
The app was recently launched, so there aren’t a huge number of videos to look at. Like other social apps and sites, the ultimate value of Bitflx will grow if more people use it.
Of course Bitflx is hardly the first time that the “world-wide” Web has been used to enhance our local experiences. In addition to the websites of thousands of local news organizations — including an increasing number of Internet only local sources like AOL’s Patch.com — we’re seeing a mushrooming trend in local coupon services. Groupon, which has filed for a public stock offering, is the best-known example, but local is now getting the attention of big players like Amazon and Google.
Amazon is expanding its AmazonLocal service from its test site in Boise to 14 cities around the country, including its hometown of Seattle and Chicago, which is where Groupon is based. Google just bought a very similar service called Dealmap. Amazon is also an investor in LivingSocial, yet another local discount site.
I find it a bit ironic yet totally appropriate that international Internet giants like Amazon and Google would invest in companies that help you find discounts at local brick-and-mortar establishments.
Let’s face it, Amazon is a great place to buy a book or a digital camera, but until someone perfects teleportation, it’s not a great place for a massage, a car wash or a hot meal. Same is true with Google. It can help you find great places to eat locally or anywhere in the world, but unless you’re an employee with access to one of the many great eating places at its Mountain View Googleplex or one of its satellite offices, Google can only feed your mind, not your body.
Click here to listen to my one minute CBS News/CNET Tech Talk segment about Bitflx.