Over the past few days I’ve watched this meme about the so-called “geowars” ahead of SXSW gather steam, both in the blogosphere and on Twitter. And it’s giving me a headache. For some odd reason, people believe that SXSW is going to be a full-blown coming-out […]

Over the past few days I’ve watched this meme about the so-called “geowars” ahead of SXSW gather steam, both in the blogosphere and on Twitter. And it’s giving me a headache. For some odd reason, people believe that SXSW is going to be a full-blown coming-out party for location-based services that will launch at least one of them into the stratosphere.

Ever since Twitter made such a big splash in Austin a few years ago, many startups have come to believe that if they can do the same, they will subsequently become an overnight success — a foolish assumption. It took a lot longer than that for Twitter to go from an early-stage curiosity to a mainstream phenomenon.

Even last year’s debutante, Foursquare, took a whole year to sign up 500,000 users, including myself. Impressive, but not Facebook impressive! Its rival is Gowalla, a liberally funded startup that recently crossed the 100,000 subscriber mark (and released a much-improved and a fantastic upgrade). Others such as Pelago/Whrrl are literally spraying Austin to get the attention of SXSW visitors. Add to this dozens of unknown and/or little known services and you have the “geowars.”

My problem, of course, is not with the technology per se, but with its implementations. With the exception of Foursquare, most LBS startups have not found a way to even briefly engage me. Many of them are going to meet a fate no different that that of a moth flitting around a flame on a dark summer night. So in case you hadn’t noticed, I am a tad skeptical about this notion of geowars.

From GigaOM Pro: Location: The Epicenter of Mobile Innovation in 2010.

  1. Interesting use of the “check in” as the organizing principle for other stuff like comments and photos. Also funny that Josh said “we all know checkin’s are a commodity”, I think that was @davemcclure’s quote.

  2. I think there’s something here. These are the first set of services to get anyone to reveal location, a holy grail of sorts for location-based marketing. But it is ludicrous how few users each has signe up so far. 100,000 on Gowalla? That’s a rounding error for most services getting this kind of attention. 500,000 isn’t much better.

  3. Do you see any value to the firehose data that the various services like FourSquare/Gowalla/… etc will generate? Google/Microsoft likely wrote big checks for Twitter firehose data and it can be argued that location based data is a little bit more structured and possibly more valuable for location based marketing than what Twitter offers. Twitter’s geo-tagged tweets do make the whole space a lot more interesting.

  4. Hi,
    Great post – you voice mny people’s concerns I’m sure.

    I believe that these services are only parts of the bigger puzzle. I.e. I’m not really that interested in what ‘badges’ Foursquare awards me – I’m much more interested in what ‘badges’ a retailer/venue might award me (this feature will be rolling out as part of Foursquare’s business analytics package) – this is because I wish to be rewarded & recognised for my shopping habits – think of location based services as being the gateway into airmiles 2.0

    Sorry to bring it down to money but it’s important.

    Also, yes 100K users and 500k users are ‘small’ (perhaps we have grown too used to the Facebook scale of numbers) but it is a lot easier to go from 100k to a million than 0 to 100k


  5. The wars aren’t just between the check-in services. It’s everyone getting into the location game all at once, isn’t it? In any war, there are lots of casualties and this won’t be any different. There will be a number of flash in the pan services and a few that really stick around…

  6. I’m fence-sitting Geo (but play a bit with Foursquare) until FB speaks. That’s where all my business contacts, friends and family live. When Geo starts to have more powerful tools and financial incentives, I think it will begin to play a big role. It’s still an infant.

  7. My company tellmewhere manages to get 500k users last year in a much more small country (France). How did we do that? We focused on a basic need: local search and then added a personnalized layar on it : personnalized results based on your review / check-in history and messenging system for sharing your thoughts with your friends when you are somewhere. Oh, and we have 800+ merchants who already subscribed to our business center to distribute deals!
    Our app tellmewhere is available on iPhone & android check-it out!

  8. I’ve been in this industry since 1995 — yep, it’s true. The hype around Foursquare and Gowalla looks familiar, except for one thing: these companies are a lot less substantive than the players in the browser wars, for instance.

    I hate to say this to one of the top bloggers but I will: this is fiction concocted by your colleagues at Techcrunch and Silicon Alley Insider. This has little to do with reality. These companies may be great someday, but today they are toys.

  9. Forest for the trees, methinks.

    Om, while I agree with you on the specifics, I think the excitement is justified and based on the knowledge that all the pieces (mobile web, smartphone penetration, applications, funding) are falling into place. Likely the companies you mention won’t reach the “stratosphere” but the market potential is there.

    As I write on my site: think locally scale globally!
    LBS is an industry in the making.

  10. We launched DreamWalk just 2 weeks ago and have close to 40,000 users already. Those apps lose people in their complexity. We are struggling to keep up with demand, which I think goes to show that people are willing to give up location info if the reward is high enough.


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