comScore, 16.7 million people used location check-in services in March 2011. More than 12.6 million of those people did so through their smartphones. The rise of the smartphone and location services are inextricably linked as platforms like FourSquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places and Google Latitude become mainstays in people's digital arsenals.According to
Yet, in 2009, the location market did not exist. Foursquare and Gowalla were just getting off the ground and the notion that your phone was tracking your every movement was not of great concern to the public. How did we get from zero to 16.7 million in a matter of years?
Make It A Game, People Will Come
FourSquare launched right before South by SouthWest Interactive in 2009 and took the conference by storm. It was the first mobile-based check-in game that gave users any real incentive to tell people where they were in real life through the Internet. Badges and leaderboards had digital denizens bopping around Austin telling everybody what they were doing, and where.
At its launch, we noted that Foursquare provided users with incentive, saying, "Foursquare...adds a competitive element to the interaction, as it rewards you for checking in.
Foursquare's primary competitor was Gowalla, which also had a March 2009 launch at SXSW. Checking in indeed became the thing to do.
If you were a giant geek.
The potential of location-based applications was readily apparent. It could be a cool game for users, a marketing tool for advertisers and local merchants, and a way to gain valuable data on the whereabouts of smartphone users. Two years later, we now see that tracking data is a big deal.
Checking In to the Feature Wars
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Day 1 Schedule
- When Disruptions Collide: Political Uprisings and Social Media
- Fred Wilson Keynote
- Teen Sexting and its Impact on Tech Companies
- Q&A With Jason Calacanis
- Creative Exploitation of Social Media from The Swine Flu to The Onion
- Chris Dixon and His Extraordinary Machines
- Flipboard & The Future of Media Consumption
- Life is a Game: Foursquare and the Future of Location
Fast forward about a year or so. Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR and, a little later, Facebook Places are all in a race for mind and market share.
Foursquare and Gowalla, having started at the same time, were the first to go head-to-head in adding features and attracting users. Partners were signed and incentives were launched, such as Foursquare with restaurant reviewer Zagat and Examiner.com and SCVNGR with a multitude of partners including the Boston Red Sox and Boston Globe.
Gowalla added comments and photo capability to location in March 2010, almost exactly a year after launch. Any location service that thinks of going anywhere these days has to have a full array of social capabilities - pictures, recommendations, comments and the like.
Foursquare has become the undisputed leader in the check-in game. Gowalla has tried to innovate new features to stay in the game but not much has really been heard from the service since last December when it unveiled a redesign that got mixed reviews.
Facebook Places & The Mainstream
Facebook launched its long-awaited Facebook Places in August 2010. It has seen moderate use but has not reached the type of critical mass that Facebook hoped it would when it launched. Instead, Facebook Places is just a competitor in the battle. What Facebook Places did do, however, was make the location check-in a near household term.
The day after Facebook Places was announced, Foursquare said it was registering more people than ever. The tech community stated that the war for LBSN (location-based social networks) was on.
Marketing, Development, Deals
But there is a dedicated group of users who use Foursquare and check-ins to keep in touch with friends and find new places to visit. So, the user base is there.
But monetizing a user base is easier said than done. The first thing that Foursquare did in this realm was to add its recommendation feature. In and of itself, recommendations do not seem like all that big of a deal. Yet the feature produces a huge amount of data, and data is a big piece of any Internet-based company's puzzle.
Foursquare also has a few APIs that it can license, such as the Venue API that it released in March. A step towards monetization for a startup is the ability to let other startups build on top of your platform and Foursquare seems ready to take that step.
Facebook also launched a deals program in April. There will probably be a future marriage between Facebook Places and Deals.
More Than Just The Check-In
The check-in is just the start of the location-based market. From local question-and-answer sites like the stealth startup Hipster to deals like Groupon Now and contextual applications like It Happened Here, there are a lot of possibilities for users who are willing to let their smartphones know their location.
What is coming next? That is always one of the hardest questions to answer in any industry, let alone a fledgling and unpredictable market like smartphones, location and technology. We are going to do our best to figure it out, though, at the ReadWriteWeb 2Way Summit in New York City on June 13/14. On Monday the 13th we will have a session: Foursquare and the Future of Location with Alex Rainert of Foursquare and Dan Patterson of ABC News Radio. Sign up and hang out with us in New York City for two days as we take a deep look into the future of the Web.