FarmVille every day. Such games spread like a virus, infecting Facebook news feeds and eating up big chunks of the precious little time on earth that players were blessed with before they face their inevitable, if temporarily forgotten, mortality.Millions of people click, click, click their way mindlessly through repetitive casual games like
Josh Williams used to develop software like that. A graphic designer by training, his website for sharing iconography grew popular enough that he turned it into a game called PackRat. Half a million people spent far too much time on the site, but bigger companies grew faster and quickly swallowed up the "zombification" category of casual games. (My categorization, not his.) Now Williams is building something different, perhaps the opposite of FarmVille.
Williams is the CEO of Gowalla, one of the newest and smallest of several entrants into a market referred to as "location-based social networking." Gowalla encourages people to go outside. It's a mobile game where players are rewarded for visiting new locations in the real world and for adding new spots to the Gowalla database. Users can find out who goes to particular places around town, where else those people like to go and what people think of those different spots.
Gowalla vs. Foursquare vs. Facebook
As of the end of last year, Gowalla users had checked-in at 150,000 locations in more than 100 countries around the world. Your millage may vary. The coffee shop I'm in right now has been checked into by 30 people, only two of us in the last week. Competitor Foursquare shows four users checked in and present right now. At least in this spot, Foursquare has seen 20 times as many check ins as Gowalla.
True to the backgrounds of the company's founders, Gowalla is very focused on design. Its badges, like stamps on a passport displaying where a user has checked in, are beautiful. Its user experience is simple but clear and enjoyable. Foursquare may be much bigger and have more commercial partnerships but Gowalla is much prettier and does certain things better, like importing friends from other social networks.
What about Facebook? Williams says he's as sure as anyone that Facebook is working on location as a feature. Ted Morgan, CEO and founder of location data provider Skyhook Wireless, says his company has been talking to Facebook and Twitter about location for years. Twitter recently hired developer Ryan Sarver to run its developer platform after Sarver spent four years at Skyhook.
Williams says that when Facebook launches location, he hopes that many people will want to use Gowalla as the interface to post to Facebook. They needn't wait, Facebook Connect integration is live today, but full-on entry into the location market by Facebook is going to be a very big deal.
The Rise of Location-Based Services
Gowalla has raised more than $10 million from a variety of investors large and small, several of whom also invested in Foursquare. Morgan says these kinds of services are blowing up location in a bigger way than ever before. "Around the dot com era they thought location based services were going to take off," he told us today. "That was premature but the telecoms have been talking about user privacy and preparing for a time of location services for ten years."
Morgan's company pocketed a part of Gowalla's war chest today when the social network announced that it was deploying Skyhook Wireless's location software in the Android version of Gowalla. Skyhook has driven around the country and cataloged the location of more than 80 million WiFi hotspots. It then tells its customers where they are with precision, based on the MAC addresses of nearby WiFi signals. Gowalla queries Skyhook for a device's location, to supplement the GPS data, Skyhook sends that data back and then Gowalla interprets it to suggest businesses and other venues that a user is probably at. Skyhook is now baked into the iPhone OS, but Morgan is still selling the service to other platforms and application developers.
He says that for the first five years of his now 7-year-old company it was a hard sell. "I was waving my hands a lot," he says, "trying to convince people that good location is important." Now the company is serving up location data hundreds of millions of times each day, thanks entirely to the proliferation of mobile apps in general, and the iPhone in particular.
Hundreds of millions of location checks per day, millions of check ins on applications like Gowalla - and what's the point? Williams the Gowalla CEO says that the company hasn't done a good enough job explaining the desirability of the service's badges. Some users get it and some don't, he says. "We'll be doing new things this year that make it more clear, but it's all about encouraging people to get out and experience new things." He tells stories about a user alerted that they were near Michael Jackson's birthplace and driving several miles out of their way to visit it. About a couple who have quit their jobs and now aim to check in in every state in the U.S. and every province in Canada.
Gowalla users can get social credit for doing things like going out into the woods. "And then they're out in the woods," Williams says, "and we think that's great."