In the last year, Foursquare and Gowalla have grabbed a large slice of the (albeit small) location-aware service market.
This has happened partly as a result of Twitter establishing the convention of being out and about and changing your status and partly with start-ups and developers (finally) leveraging the GPS style functionality in smart phones.
When you connect your status to your location, you create the notion of announcing presence.
There is a gold rush around this idea of presence, and it’s not hard to see why. Selling to someone based on their location is a marketeers dream – it is a highly personal and unique metric, it’s never been tapped before, and it’s worth a ton of shredded shrimp as a result.
So who is going to win this fight then? Both have a lot of catching up to do in terms of numbers and no matter how good Foursquare or Gowalla get, they ultimately only have a couple of million users.
Facebook is about to launch its location offering, and given it’s a numbers game – Facebook looks pretty much unbeatable. I had always hoped Facebook would be ‘the one check-in to rule them all’ and the other services would simply action through Facebook leveraging their graph. This looks possible based on what Facebook are testing. But we won’t no until the horse is out the gate. Of course, Facebook playing foster father to all the start-ups would be quite brilliant for anyone playing in this domain.
Most of these services are facing ‘check-in fatigue’. If you’re using any location aware services then you’ll know of the recent flood of services such as; Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Whrrl, , MyTown,Cause World, Hot Potato, Plancast or even foodspotting. Clearly checking in to each of these in each venue you arrive at is a full time hobby (and a farce).
Checking-in is a niche gaming mechanic that (I believe) the mainstream audience will not put up with. Lord knows I’m certainly tired of it. My device knows I’m here, the network knows I’m here, can’t you check me in automatically please! Latitude (Google’s location product) is much better from this point of view, privacy preference issues aside.
SXSW this year was all about location, mainly because everyone, well ok, just the early adopters, have caught on. SXSW taught me a few interesting things I’d missed just playing with one or two services. There are a number of ways you can announce presence that are really useful. Checking-in Foursquare style is just one way. Activity and time are also really useful metrics, for example – I was at Big Willies bar & grill (I just left), I am at Big Willies bar & grill, I will be at Big Willies bar & grill. They all present quite different types of functionality and therefore lend themselves to different types of service.
During the day (at SXSW), for example, I found sitby.us more useful than Foursquare or Twitter. It’s an events listing program that tells you what’s on and where. When you arrive at an event you tell the system where you’re sitting and it shows where your (Twitter) friends are sitting – useful as some of the venue halls are very big! It clarified what anyone working in location services knows, location is a piece of the pie, not the pie itself. You need an offering where location is a leveraging factor, not the only offering.
The other really intriguing thing about sitby.us is that it focuses on where you are going to be and where you are without using GPS. You simply ‘check-in’ to one place on a list that you select. It uses the locative mechanic without needing the related WiFi or GPS location signal. Services that simply offer an ‘I’m here’ product simply aren’t really useful in the long-term compared to the service with an actual use case. ‘I’m here’ is only step one and there are much bigger wins. Ultimately, ‘I’m here’ is like having a profile image (on a digital service) – it will become one of many default metrics. We still have a lot to learn in this field, but things are moving very fast.
As location as a service offering (add-on) gains ground, we will find a large number of niche behaviors which are not catered for by the main players. The difference between just checking into a place and stating a specific intention in that place could be a really big deal in certain scenarios and activities. No matter what Facebook does, it’s still all to play for.
One thing is for certain – there’s money in that there location data, and the Location gold rush is in full swing.