So I’ve got a thing for information that’s got some location meta data, that’s no secret. You’d then think that I’d be drooling over all these hot location based applications that are constantly popping up all over the place but for the most part I’m indifferent to them. That’s not to say I don’t know about them, I probably know more about them than what’s considered healthy, just that I can’t seem to find a use for them no matter how hard I try. I’ve been on Foursquare for quite a while now and whilst I have a few friends on it there’s not enough of them to make the service useful nor interesting, especially when most of them only check-in when they see me doing it.
I mulled this over recently with an old friend of mine who’s also been on the service for a while and he echoed my sentiments. Whilst Foursquare might be growing users in other locations its popularity here made it something of a non-event, even amongst those who were inclined to try something like that out. We both agreed that if more people were using something like Foursquare its utility would increase dramatically but couldn’t see it happening any time soon. The idea of Facebook doing something in this space had been around for a while but with no word from them on what they were doing (apart from outside speculation) I put it all down to rumour milling.
That was until just recently when Facebook released their Places application.
Now whilst the service isn’t available here in Australia yet there’s been enough coverage of it in the news to get a good idea about what it actually entails. For the most part it’s the barebones features of all the popular location applications, just good old fashioned check-ins. The only innovative part that Facebook deserves credit is for being able to check-in friends with you which, whilst sure to draw the ire of your more private friends, helps to reduce the real anti-social part of checking in. Apart from that you wouldn’t be far off the mark from calling this Foursquare without any of the game aspects, except for the fact that it’s more appealing than its predecessors.
The biggest hurdle to overcome with any new social application is one of a critical mass of users¹ and Facebook Places solves this by having all my friends as potential users of the application. I’ve had a tough time trying to convince other people to use yet another social app at the best of times but rarely have I heard about a new feature on Facebook before one of my social circle is using it. The check-in a friend feature also means that I can basically goad them into using it by tagging them when we’re doing something together and if they don’t appear in the check-in I know that they’d rather not participate. It’s quite an unobtrusive way of getting people into the check-in mindset.
I’m interested in seeing where they take the application from here. Facebook have shown that they want to be more active in the location space but don’t seem to be too interested in trying to dominate it. I say this because at their launch event they had all the big location players there with them to talk about the future of location now that Facebook was getting involved. Realistically it looks like Facebook is taking aim at being the platform for check-ins and letting others do the hard work of innovating around it. Mostly this is because they want to own the check-in data which will make them more valuable to their advertisers and investors. They’re also transferring the risk of developing check-in based applications to third parties and you can bet your bottom dollar that if any of them make a killer feature that Facebook has to have they’ll be knocking at their door, cheques in hand.
I might not see more of my friends venturing out into the fringe world of social applications but I’m sure I’ll have a few of them checking in as the feature makes its way down under. Facebook has demonstrated yet again that the big players aim to be the platform of the Internet and the small players are the ones that innovate around them. As the service expands I can see it becoming the defacto place for place information, fulfilling that vision of a grand central database someone had not so long ago.
¹You could also argue that something that has utility can also drive adoption as much as critical user mass does. I’d agree with that since the only reason I got into Twitter was to join this blog to Facebook and the social part came a long time later. A great example of an application that’s popular because of its utility first is Evernote although its recent popularity could easily be attributed social factors.
The Internet is a bit of an oddity when you try to compare its real world counterparts. Take for example this blog, in the real world it would be akin to a column in a newspaper or perhaps a small publication done off my own back. The big difference is the barrier to entry as writing a regular column for a newspaper takes either the right connections or some kind of journalistic training/merit. With the Internet you have what would be the equivalent of a newspaper shop offering to publish your content for free to unlimited numbers of people (blog networks) no matter what you actually end up writing. The extremely low barrier to entry extends to other markets as well with online businesses able to replicate their much larger real world competitors at a fraction of the cost.
I’ve always said that one of the fears that nags away at the back of my head (which also makes it one of my biggest motivators) is that some genius kid will stumble across this blog, see Geon and the value it represents and code the whole thing in a weekend marathon hack session. Then before I have a chance to release it upon the world they’ll release theirs and I’ll be left here holding my proverbial, sobbing quietly in a corner somewhere. This comes back to the low barrier of entry which, when coupled with a successful but not-too-technical service, leads to a flurry of me-too type services all hoping to grab a share of the emerging market.
To give you some examples I can name 2 types of services that up until recently no one would’ve thought there would be a use for yet now there are at least half a dozen examples out in the wild. The first, which I blogged about a week ago, is the new social networking technology of checking in to locations in order to alert your friends you’re there, usually coupled with some kind of gaming aspect to hook you in. The list of services making use of this idea seems to be growing daily with a few examples being: Foursquare, Gowalla, BrightKite, Booyah, Yelp and Scvngr. This is not even mentioning some other services that, whilst not focused on check-ins, include them as part of their overall product.
The second is URL shortening services. Whilst long and cumbersome URLs have plagued the Internet for many years they really haven’t been a problem since if you’re sending a URL to someone else they were usually on either email and IM, which usually didn’t restrict your character limit. With the explosion of micro-blogging services with their artificial limits on post size people sought solutions in order to be able to share content on these networks. I can remember way back when in 2002 when TinyURL debuted their service and whilst it was nice to have some short links (especially considering mod_rewrite still appeared to be black magic to most people) I didn’t need it unless the link was really obscenely long, and was only really needed if it had characters that broke on copy and paste. Still today TinyURL is going strong (rated 711 most visited site on Alexa) and its list of imitators is long including services like: 3.ly, bit.ly, ow.ly, cli.gs, is.gd, yourls.com and many specific URL shortners like youtu.be and tcrn.ch.
At its heart this is the real power of the medium of the Internet. With traditional forms of media and business the barrier to entry is quite high, to the point of being out of the reach for the everyman. On the Internet however, where resources are near limitless and the currency of choice is not the almighty dollar, the only limitation really is how much effort you are willing to put in. That also leads to a rampant world of copy-cats where any service that enjoys even a mild success will be duplicated to no end by many people across the Internet. The key then remains how you differentiate yourself from the competition, as you won’t be unique for very long. It appears that for the majority of services there’s room for one giant and a myriad of others that cater to a specific need or location. There’s nothing wrong with being one of many but if you’re thinking of doing something new online it’s best to think about how to deal with the competition before they arrive, rather than pretending like you’re the only one who can do what you do.
I’d like to think of myself as knowing a bit about the geo space and how it can be used as a basis for new applications or how it can augment existing ones. I’ve been elbow deep in developing such an application for over 6 months now and I’ve spent the last couple months checking out every service that could possibly be considered a competitor to me (there’s not many, if you’re wondering). Because of this I’ve started to notice a couple trends with up and coming web applications and it seems that the social networking world is going ballistic for any service that incorporates the idea of “check ins” at any location around the world. After spending some time with these applications (even ones that are still in private beta) I can’t seem to get a hold of why they’re so popular. Then again I didn’t get Facebook for a long time either.
The basic idea that powers almost all of these applications is that you use your phone to determine your location. Based on that the application will then present you with a list of places which you can “check-in” to. If your friends on the application they’ll get a notification that you’ve checked in there, presumably to get them to comment on it or to help you arrange with getting people together. It’s a decent trade off between privacy and letting people know your location as you control when and where the application checks in and most of them allow you to share the updates with only your friends (or no one at all). The hook for most of the services seems to be the addition of some kind of game element to it, with many of them adding in achievements and points. For someone like me it falls into the “potentially useful” category, although my experience with them has led me to think that saying “potentially” was probably being kind.
The services themselves seem to be doing quite well, with Foursquare and Gowalla both managing to wrangle deals with companies to reward users of their applications. In fact it seems that check-in based services are the latest darling child for venture capitalists, which funding flowing thick and fast for any and all services that implement this idea. For the most part I’d attribute most of their success with their ability to hook into Facebook through Connect, as building a user base from scratch for a social networking based site is nigh impossible lest you tangle yourself up with Zuckerberg’s love child. It also helps improves user trust in the application, although that benefit is on shaky ground as of late.
Still though the value they provide seems to be rather limited. After hearing that a couple of my tech inclined friends had ventured onto Foursquare (and I got bored of reading about them every day on my RSS reader) I decided to download their iPhone app and give it ago. The integration between other social networking services was quite good and it instantly picked up a couple people I didn’t know where using Foursquare. Playing around with it I began checking in to various places, accumulating points and my first badge. Still I didn’t feel like I really got anything out of using the application, apart from some virtual points which don’t appear to be worth anything to anyone (although the same could be said of Xbox GamerScore and PSN Levels). This hasn’t stopped Foursquare from reaching over 1 million users in just over a year which is quite impressive when compared to the current giants (Twitter took twice as long to reach a similar milestone).
It’s no secret that I’ve shied away from calling Geon a social networking application, despite the obvious social implications it has. Primarily this is because I don’t want to be lumped in as yet another social app but more and more I find myself needing to incorporate such features into the application, as that’s what people are coming to expect. There’s also the point that many of the ideas make a lot of sense when translated properly into my application. Two recent suggestions were a kind of rework of the Twitter trending topics and the other being the ability to follow people and locations. The first wouldn’t exactly be considered a social networking feature but the latter is pretty much the bread and butter of many social networking services. Still I don’t think people will be looking for check-ins in up and coming social apps, even after Facebook introduces their Foursquare killing service.
It’s true though that although I might not get it that doesn’t matter when so many others do. For as long as I develop Geon I’ll be keeping an eye on these services to see how they evolve as their user base grows, mostly to see if there’s anything I should be doing that I’m not already. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all changes when Facebook finally unveils its location based service to the world and you never know, I might have the penny drop moment that so many people seem to be having about check-ins.
Until then however my Foursquare app will be little more than an interesting talking point to bring up amongst friends.