screen shot of Highlight's

For a brief and heady time earlier this year, Highlight was the “it” girl of the startup world. Launched by Paul Davison, a fresh-faced entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark Capital, the mobile app designed to introduce you to “interesting people” using data from your Facebook graph garnered gargantuan buzz, along with funding from Benchmark, SV Angel and Michael Arrington’s CrunchFund.

Then, Highlight headed to SXSW and promptly flopped. Critics carped about the app’s drain on their iPhone batteries, and some worried about the privacy aspects of letting anybody nearby who also had the app installed learn their names and other info.

Other than a somewhat updated version in July, Highlight and Davison have been quiet since then. That’s about to change: This morning, Davison will unveil a new and improved take on the app that he thinks will quiet those carping critics. And, Highlight will finally release an Android version, which is potentially important since Android runs on, you know, three-fourths of the world’s smartphones. (New York-based competitor Sonar launched on Android last month and saw its numbers go gaga.)

“We’ve rebuilt the back end, moved into new offices, localized into 10 languages and improved battery life,” Davison told me last week. “The last couple months, we’ve been heads-down on the new update, because we really want to do it the right way and make sure we’re set up properly for the long term.” Paul Davison

That back end includes a new architecture based on the Python programming language and reworked algorithms to make the app’s notifications more relevant. “In San Francisco, I cross paths with probably 150 people a day; I certainly don’t want to get notified about all of them,” Davison said. On the other hand, the person walking past you might want to know if it’s your birthday.

While Davison wouldn’t reveal user numbers, he said growth has remained steady over the months. “I deeply believe that if you build this product the right way, you can build something everyone in the world will want to use,” he said.

Then he added: “What we ultimately want to build is what we think of as the sixth sense: You walk into a room, and you see someone, and you know everything about them.” And while he acknowledges that’s a little … well, weird, he argues that Facebook was weird at first, too. “We would have never dreamed of putting pictures of our kids on the Web five years ago.”

Highlight isn’t the only geo-location app undergoing a makeover. The same day I spoke to Davison, Banjo founder and CEO Damien Patton gave me the download on what’s new with his market-leading* app. The upshot: Patton’s aiming to re-orient his product from showing you who’s nearby to showing you what’s happening in other places.

“Let’s say there’s a breaking news story in New York City,” he said. “Banjo takes you to that spot.” By crawling user updates on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks, the app can show CNN reporters where to find Romney voters leaving a polling place on Election Day, or tell music lovers what’s on the set list at the concert their friends’ friends are enjoying.

“Nobody’s been able to build a database that takes that much data and makes sense of it in real time,” Patton bragged. “You can go to any city in the world now and see how you’re connected to the people there.”

Meanwhile, yet another social-mobile startup, Y Combinator-backed Glassmap, has also recently pivoted, but into a more business-oriented space. The new “Glassmap Custom Apps” helps small businesses – and a small but growing number of Fortune 500 companies – reach nearby customers via their mobile phones.

“We’re really pushing the enterprise product right now,” co-founder Geoffrey Woo told me. “It’s just more fundamentally sound in terms of building a sustainable business than trying to catch the ebb and flow of hype and fads.”

*(judging by these figures from AppData: http://bit.ly/Ht082B; http://bit.ly/STTj1m; http://bit.ly/ypIlUh)

Peter Delevett Peter Delevett (184 Posts)

Peter Delevett covers startups and venture capital for the San Jose Mercury News. He's been a journalist in Silicon Valley since the dot-com daze.