During the days of dial-up, instant messaging came into its own but there was one major issue: If you weren’t on the same network as a friend, you couldn’t talk to them. For example, if you were on AOL and your friend was on MSN, you would have to email one another to talk. This problem spread into instant messaging clients as we moved to broadband, and though some of the big players now talk to one another, some still don’t. This type of incompatibility problem is the reason behind the formation of OSLO, or Open Sharing of Location-based Objects.

The alliance, as you might expect, aims to make the updating of location elements on one social network, compatible with other networks. So for example, if you tell Skout (a location-based dating service and one of the founding members of OSLO) where you are, another social network, Moximity, will also be able to read that location data.

While I’m generally bullish on location and its future in the mobile social networking sphere, I fully recognize that the need to update your location on several different networks is a real problem. And it’s one that OSLO may be able to solve. But there’s a potentially big problem: Getting the big guys to go along.

Right now, OSLO has 10 founding members: Aka-Aki, Belysio, Buddycloud, Locle, Moximity, Nulaz, Rummble, Skout, Tooio and WAYN. The problem is that while combined they do have some 30 million users, chances are you’ve probably never heard of most of them. But when a company like Google launches its Latitude location service, it makes headlines worldwide and gets a million people to sign up in just a week. This is the kind of member OSLO needs to give its alliance clout.

And it may just get that clout. The alliance talked informally not only to Google, but Yahoo and Vodafone as well, last week at Mobile World Congress. Nothing came of these talks, but the large companies expressed “positive interest,” according to Ronan Higgins, chief executive of Locle, another founding OSLO member.

OSLO faces another problem as well: privacy. While it’s tricky enough to deal with the privacy implications of a single network adding location-sharing features, adding it to a group of networks that can all talk to one another, will undoubtedly be seen as a big problem by some. But OSLO is attempting to make clear privacy guidelines by stating that networks can only query for location data if that users has granted permission to that network to get the data. On a technical level, OSLO lists its core objectives as follows:

  • Query an OSLO partner’s location server for lat,lon the positions of friends within x miles (kilometres) of a specified lat,lon
  • Query an OSLO partners location server for public-shared profile information (photo, age, gender, hometown, etc.) of a specific user
  • Pass a message into an OSLO partner’s server to a specific user and enable return messages

OSLO sounds like a very promising development in the future of location-based services if it can gain the support of the bigger fish it needs to get serious clout. If that happens, all of the services involved can only be helped in terms of usage. But if the alliance fails, location, like instant messeging before it, could be a lock-in factor for certain networks.