Geowars…Really?

17 Comments

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.

17 Comments

Sanjay Maharaj

There is definitely a use for location based service and I am sure it will find mainstream audience and utility over the next year or even much earlier. I have recently started to use Foursuqare and am now only getting used to remember to check in each time I am out and about. The different badges Foursquare awards really has no value to me what so ever, but I can see value if I started receiving coupons, specials from vendors I tend to frequent, that is where the true value and eventaul monetization is for LBS. I am suprised that vendor and retailer shave not really embraced this tool to entice consumers and regular customers, what better way to maintain customer loyalty but perhaps I am wron in my assumption that vendors, retailers ar ento adopting this service quick enough.
LBS if definitely here to stay and I think Foursquare and Gowalla are both doing an excellent job in evolving as much as the concept is very much evolving as well.

Phil Hendrix, Ph.D.

Om, I agree with your observations that the attention given to “check-in” apps is disproportionate and that the space is getting very crowded. However, I do think these startups are working at an important intersection of LBS, social media and the Internet of Things. Collectively, they are learning how (and how not) to motivate and make it easy/worthwhile for users to connect to places, other people and even things (see Mobile Devices And Location-based Services – Connecting People, Places and Things at http://bit.ly/9yVYhl). While much of the attention is focused on “check-in,” this involves just one of three important dimensions – Detect, Discover and Disclose – describing how individuals are using mobile devices and LBS to connect to people, places and (increasingly) things (not just businesses, but objects and images as well). Over the next 12-18 months, I think we’ll see lots of continuing experimentation and innovation, some of which will stick and become part of our routines, much like checking Twitter and Facebook. Important questions yet to be answered include (i) how many and which of these startups will gain enough momentum to acheive even modest scale; (ii) which of the myriad features being developed will prove compelling enough to “spread”; and (iii) how and when major players (Google, Facebook, perhaps Twitter) will either acquire or incorporate the LBS+social media companies and features being developed into their portfolios. It is interesting to note that much of this experimentation is originating from startups, not the major players.
Phil Hendrix, PhD – immr (author, Location – Epicenter of Mobile Innovation, GigaOM Pro report)

Kevin Bradshaw

We’re making progress with mobile services for sure, this is evidence.

But the fuss over check-ins is ludicrous.

It’s a bit like assuming that if you reload a page on amazon enough times, you’ll get the item for free.

I wonder how many of us think that’ll ever happen?

Robert L

So what you are saying is that to be acquired you need to get the user base into significant numbers rather than develop all the cool monetised aspects which people would use.

I am sure Foursquare have had feedback on how to make their app work better with more features. My guess is it will be Facebook who acquires a partner into this space to really start monetising location based services. The problem with Facebook itself is that its got pretty ‘ugly’ and somewhat clumsy and needs pruning to be properly focussed in the geo space.

Any site that doesn’t do a proper check of its user base via driver license id or credit card/debit card sign up will continue to get spammers , paedophiles and general no-gooders joining. I doubt Facebook has got 500 Million proper users – there would be a high percentage of multiple accounts and people who have signed up with fake id’s. Until the Social Network environment is policed better I cant see Geo LBS becoming a major feedback loop from its user base.

dreamwalk

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.

Brian S Hall

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.

vermin

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.

Gilles

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!

Jeff Tucker

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.

Mike

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…

Joel Hughes

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

Joel

Atul Arora

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.

pwb

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.

Karl Long

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.

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