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.
Over the past couple months I’ve taken upon myself to get more familiar with the broader world of technological startups, mostly because I’m always on the lookout for new APIs that I can aggregate into Geon. More recently however I’ve started to notice that there’s a big trend towards making any application location aware and there’s an increasing amount of social networking applications that use places and locations as their main selling point. The current hot thing appears to be apps that let you “check-in” at locations, say your local coffee shop or cinema, and give you rewards based on that. It fits in quite well with the formula I came up with for successful social networks (sense of belonging + wanting to share with community + competition element = win) so whilst I can’t see myself using the service I can understand why they’re becoming more popular. Of course with so many of the services starting to come out of the wood works some obvious duplication efforts become apparent, namely that they all roll their own location databases.
Now from both a business and technical point of view this makes quite a lot of sense. Whilst it’s nice to rely on other people’s services to provide you with data it also poses a risk, especially if that service is made available to you free of charge. Usually you’ll be on the rough end of the stick in terms of usage agreements and they’ll absolve themselves of any responsibility should the service go down. With bigger players though you can usually count on them being fairly reliable (I consider most Google services as 6 Sigma, for example) but when your core business relies on services provided by others you have to ensure that you have strict service level agreements with them or you put yourself at quite a large risk. Keeping the service internal, whilst increasing your own risk profile, at least grants you control so that any outages can be dealt with more effectively.
Still any engineer will see duplicative systems as wasteful if they’re not specifically being used for redundancy. The recent explosion in location aware applications hasn’t gone un-noticed and the duplicative efforts managed to catch the eye of one journalist:
Here is the problem: These efforts at creating an underlying database of places are duplicative, and any competitive advantage any single company gets from being more comprehensive than the rest will be short-lived at best. It is time for an open database of places which all companies and developers can both contribute to and borrow from. But in order for such a database to be useful, the biggest and fastest-growing Geo companies need to contribute to it.
I put this suggestion to Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley the other night at a party, and he was enthusiastic about the idea. Foursquare is building up its own comprehensive database of places, which it calls “venues,” through its users who add places they want to check into, if they don’t already exist. Foursquare matches their GPS lat/long coordinates to its database of venues (businesses, points of interest, even people’s homes). Later I followed up by email and asked Crowley, “Isn’t the quality of your places directory, built by your users, a competitive advantage?
He makes a good point, it would be quite advantageous for many location aware applications (mine not so much) if there was an open database that contained a list of places worldwide. Whilst I’m not aware of a similar call for geolocation services (translating co-ordinates into names) the service GeoNames seems to embody the exact idea Schonfeld is talking about, albeit for a different kind of service. For anyone looking to use such services GeoNames provides a very quick way of integrating them into your project and if I hadn’t run into them earlier I may well have ended up spending a fair chunk of cash to get the same functionality (or signed my life away to Bing Map Services, which I’ve already done in part). Still the guys over GeoNames have been repeatedly bitten by those looking to make use of the service and I can’t help but feel the same thing would end up happening to those who would build the database of places. They’d provide a service we’d all love and enjoy, but they wouldn’t be getting a lot of tangible benefits as a result.
Schonfeld makes the point that any small advantage of a place database that has an edge over their competition doesn’t really give a company any advantage. To a point that’s true, since most of the legwork has already been done and it wouldn’t take a dedicated programmer more than a few weeks to replicate a similar database. Still anyone who goes ahead and makes this open database wears all the implementation and operational costs as well. They do gain a decent amount of power by being a central authority for something (which screams Google to me) but it will all come down to whether people co-operate or not. The trend towards an open web makes me think that they probably would, but it’s still a risk.
Right now I don’t envisage Geon actually requiring such a database, mostly because it’s focused on information + location and not so much if that happens to be from a bar or convention center. If such a thing would be implemented I’m sure I could augment the data stream with some place information to give the information a bit more context but it’s currently in the same bucket as the weather for a given location. It’s another cool thing to add on but the audience that I’m targeting probably won’t need it (and it will just add to the noise).
It’s really just a modern version of the tragedy of the commons and the solution is not much different than it was back then. I’m sure everyone would cry foul if the first such implementation came with a price tag for access but unless a large company wants to play the good patron to the rest of the world such central resources will be slow to come about, if ever. Any startup making use of such data hasn’t seemed to have any trouble coming up with their own dataset and it appears that will be the situation for a long time to come.