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What the New Foursquare Says About Geo-Local’s Future

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Towards the end of 2010, I had a long chat with Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of the New York-based startup Foursquare. I really wanted to talk to him about the state of geo-local, which seemed to have been stuck in neutral for a long time.

It seemed every app was just aping Foursquare and its check-ins. There was little imagination. Sure, there are a handful of interesting apps, and I have written about some of them (Whrrl, for example). But most of the other apps were basically Foursquare facsimiles.

Matt Galligan, co-founder of another location-based services company, San Francisco-based SimpleGeo, has an interesting theory. He believes that because Foursquare was first out of the gate with check-ins and had tasted early success, people thought the check-in was the innovation — not the geo-local aspect of the application. As a result the check-in behavior was quickly imitated and now has become pervasive in the geo-local apps.

My problem with the check-in driven apps is that they treated checking-in as an end in itself. (And unsurprisingly, those apps prompted check-in fatigue.) As my colleague Ryan Kim puts it, “the check-in is like wearing a shirt in a restaurant, without it, you have no service.”

To me, geo-location is just another vector; it’s a way to slice and dice information, filter it and make that information available in a location-relevant manner.

So I asked Crowley if he thought that we would have this world where location defines all content and data consumption experiences? His answer in short was yes, because geo-location is about experiences — not places.

People are giving us one or two or three pieces of data every day about the places they go to. We can cut that data up. This is a new way to look at your neighborhood based on the places you’ve been, and your friends have been to. (You can read my full interview with Crowley here.)

Foursquare had about half a billion check-in last year and recently passed the 7.5 million-user mark. Yesterday, Foursquare launched its new version 3.0 and took the first steps towards this new future. It started offering recommendations based on inputs such as places you visit, places visited by your friends, the type of places they frequent and favorites. In our review of the new Foursquare app, Ryan pointed out that:

Many of the updates put the focus back on check-ins, but infuse the action with much more meaning. Now users have more reasons to check in to places, instead of just broadcasting their location.

Is the new app perfect? Not really, and I would go as far saying not even close. But as an active and avid user of Foursquare, I think this is not only a big step forward for the fledgling service, but I feel that this should have a positive impact on the geo-local ecosystem.

Just as copycats embraced the idea of check-ins, perhaps, now they will also start thinking about the possibilities of local and start building applications that help bring information to us. I suspect that will remain wishful thinking on my part, because the focus will be on two other big upgrades in Foursquare 3.0 — Rewards and Loyalty.

Gilligan thinks that, soon enough, the geo-local coordinates are going become just another feature inside an app, and it will be an app developers ability to layer data on top of that which will help the apps stand out. Makes sense.

After all, in the middle part of the last decade, everyone was trying to build their own social network. When Facebook offered a big social network for other app developers to use, smart companies like Zynga jumped on the opportunity and built social games that have now turned it into a multi-billion dollar company. Geo-location information is going to follow the same trajectory and we going to see what Galligan calls “location aware” applications. So if you are an app developer, there are two things you need to be thinking about:

  • Your app needs to be social. (Facebook Connect and; Twitter make that possible.)
  • Your app needs to have the ability to use location, marry it to other data and offer suggestions to get relevant information easy.

For instance, is going to become even more fun (and useful) if it starts aggregating popular photos based on location and creating a local version of the photo stream. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a quick visual glance into the lives of people near you and at the same time have the option of keeping tabs on your entire network of friends?

Looking beyond a photo service, I think it is not hard to imagine that in the very near future we are going to see apps offering “suggestions” much as the new Foursquare app does, and help people do things and connect with each other.

What to read on the web:

9 Responses to “What the New Foursquare Says About Geo-Local’s Future”

  1. Michael

    I love the spelling mistake about half way through the article. “Gilligan”?? He would have loved a bit of geo location info on where Maryanne and Ginger were hanging out…

  2. Jonathan Chamberlin

    Yes, yes, yes, yes!

    Let me pontificate for a while on LBS, mobile tech and check-ins.

    In my mind, this post is closely related to last weeks, “magical iPad” post. I do not believe LBS’s (Foursquare, Gowalla, FB Places) are magical, because, to add my words to your own, “our LBS experience is not befitting the device and its hardware capabilities.” I’d even take it one step further and say Foursquare is not location’s killer app (people aren’t exactly buying smartphones just to check-in).

    However, location is the “killer idea” of mobile tech because it’s befitting the device, etc, etc. With the iPhone we have a really powerful communication device and media creation tool, w/ all these cool hardwares (camera, gyroscope, etc) that is in our pocket or hand at least 12 hours a day. This technology was always about geo-location and never about check-ins. Foursquare just did an excellent job on selling us that idea.


    They don’t match our schema. Before you only checked into doctor appointments, airports and nice restaurants. Two of those things may be the most dreaded experiences ever. Now we are expected to check into every place we go. Technology works best when it matches the real world. We should just be at a place on our phone like we are in real life…that’s it.

    Check-ins aren’t hyper-geo-local. If we are talking location, and really taking advantage of mobile tech, then a LBS should be every where we go, not just “this place with a check-in.” Location 2.0/Geo-fencing corrects this and I believe this is what location’s killer app will incorporate. Again, technology works best when it matches the real world – we need geo-fences around every possible space in our world – no matter how small.

    Geo-fencing is smarter than check-ins. Using actual GPS points adds context/depth to a location and allows them to communicate w/ each other. I believe this is crucial to the future of LBS’s because it can easily give us personalized experiences and allows for automatic check-ins.

    Location and social. One thing I firmly believe, a belief not shared by most, is that location is a true network and should be treated as such. My reasoning is that many of the traditional true networks (school, work, family) are based on location, time and shared experiences in the first place. And like your post says, geo-location is about experiences. But I think a better social maneuver is to focus on the location network and dismiss all others. The finger print of the location network is one that is temporary, live and evolving – it’s based on common experiences. (I speak more toward very broad apps. Obviously, social gaming should still include your FB friends.) Btw. This fixes some of the privacy issue we have w/ LBS’s.

    This riff comes down hard on the current state of LBS’s, but that’s only because I feel there’s a better way to offer a great experience. We haven’t seen any yet.

    As an aside. Looking at the great Internet technologies we see a common theme – communication. Email, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter all share this commonality. I don’t see that with Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places. To say “Jon Chamberlin checked-in to so and so a place” seems kinda shallow. It is the things that come after the check-in that changes the world.

  3. Interesting post, thanks.
    As a frequent user of Foursquare, i have discovered that my main problem with the model is the ability of every user to add the same place under a diffrent name.
    As a result, though you might have for example 15 users at the same time in the same place, they can be split in their checks-in to 3 diffrent names of the place.
    This problem intensify when you consider adding the same place name in diffrent languages.
    I think there is a need for place names management.

  4. “To me, geo-location is just another vector; it’s a way to slice and
    dice information, filter it and make that information available in a
    location-relevant manner.”

    In less words, horizontal integration and feedback of/to vertical data

    Similar to Fred Wilson’s ideas.
    The Always Logged In Experience [1]
    Mobile Notifications[2]

    The problem I see is to create “mash-ups”. Combing signals from
    verticals to create another sub-vertical. The integration has to be
    around the machine (horizontal) instead of another [sub-]vertical.

    To put bad analogies to good work, take a look at this research[3]:
    What we have done so far with our tools is create a super sonic pulley
    attach it to one end of the rope and give the elephant a button to push. But what is needed is somebody on the other site of the rope to pull, which they know.

    To really get the teeth grinding:
    It’s not about the user it’s about the machine.

    We know a lot more about self awareness these days, the question is how
    much “self” do we need in our machines. I think if we integrate and
    feedback vertical providers it’s very little but would “feel” like an
    extraordinarily step forward. Maybe something Google or HP should do to
    have a little fun with Apple playing catch up. That is if they want to provide a better experience than Apple[4].




  5. Om, companies that have focused on location as their business instead of “dial tone” for their business are struggling mightily or just coming around to changing their business models now. The real winners, it would seem, are the companies who are aggregating all the Foursquare, Yelp!, Gowalla, etc, data into one app like Footfeed or similar – they could potentially have more users than the companies feeding them the actual data!

    What happens when Facebook and Google get really serious about this business? It seems that with their reach and their data they could roll over this industry pretty quickly so companies like Foursquare need to start innovating again…don’t you think?

  6. Here is a similar story

    Nearly two years ago, I outlined five reasons Apple’s iPhone will change the wireless business, the foremost being increased web usage on mobile phones. I should have added another item to that list: catalysing location-based services and applications that use geolocation data to enhance their functionality. One company that’s benefiting from this trend is Boston-based Skyhook Wireless. The 6-year-old company got a big boost when Apple decided to include its core technology in the iPhone platform.