Imagine you were a robot who only knew how to describe the world in four ways: self, other, time, and object. Now imagine you were struck by a bolt of lightning and found your robot brain aware of a whole new column in the spreadsheet...Place. You'd feel like a whole new robot and you'd probably sing a very happy robot song.
That's what the social web is going through right now, with the rise of location data and services as a viable pivot point for developers to work their magic with. Next week 2nd place check-in app Gowalla says it will launch at least the beginning of something a small but fascinating group of robot magicians has long waited for: a write-capable API.
What Kind of Apps Might We See?
Imagine a mobile app that let you check-in at all the famous art museums of the world, post photos of yourself outside them and see which museums your friends have been to. Or the best places in the world to eat grilled cheese sandwiches, if that's your thing.
Niche topical apps like that could become easier than ever to create and tie-together with larger more established location based social network providers with the availability of multiple write APIs.
You could have your cheese sandwich check-ins show up in your Gowalla and Foursquare social networks, if you want, or you could view and use an app built on top of those APIs that only published and displayed check-ins at cheese sandwich related places. It's really all about cheese sandwiches.
Leading check-in app Foursquare has an API, or Application Programming Interface, that developers can already build software on top of that reads Foursquare data and can publish check-ins to Foursquare as well. But competitor Gowalla has had a read-only API, meaning 3rd party apps could display user location data but couldn't publish back to Gowalla.
Gowalla developer Adam Keys told the company's developer email list today that unlike previous promises a write-API was coming "next week," this time he means it. "The good news is that I think I've got the foundation in place," he wrote. "I'm hoping to write up the docs and get *something* out next week, even if it's not complete API access."
The Gowalla apps include one thing that Foursquare does not - the ability to upload photos of places along with your check-in. Might that be a part of the new Gowalla API? We certainly hope so.
What Does This Mean?
It means there's more than one game in town. There's a very big difference between one hot check-in app you can publish to and two. As ReadWriteWeb's resident hacker and geofreak Tyler Gillies told me this afternoon, "I think this will really change the game as far as people's ability to create applicatons that allow you to check into a venue on multiple services."
The value of a multi-platform check-in app is that you don't have to choose, you can participate in and see your friends' activity across services you yourself don't spend a lot of time on.
At the same time, it means you get to choose. If everyone in the world was on AT&T and they couldn't call out to Verizon, you'd never leave one service because it would mean you'd lose contact with your friends.
Enter interoperability and you've got customer choice, vendor competition and a new wave of innovation.
At least that could be how it turns out with regard to the addition of interoperable Place streams across multiple vendors.
Foursquare today lets a user opt-in to have news and reviews from favorite organizations like the Huffington Post, the Wall St. Journal and the Independent Film Channel pushed automatically to their phones when they check-in near a place that those organizations have annotated. That's hot and it's just the beginning of the kind of features these kinds of location apps will be able to offer in the future. Like a robot that's been struck by lightning.
A service provider or developer can offer software users a lot if they know what the user likes, who the user is friends with and how recent all that data is. Add knowing where people, places and things are and you've got a big jump in potential recombination of factors. Not just for location apps themselves either, but in all kinds of apps that use the location data such apps make it easy and compelling to publish.
Maybe even with pictures.