There was a moment of laughter when ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas asked Foursquare founder and CEO Dennis Crowley the question that was on everyone’s mind at Tuesday night’s ReadWriteMix event in San Francisco: “Is Foursquare still a thing?”
Crowley has big plans for his company, which include fragmenting its signature check-in app into two pieces. At ReadWriteMix, he told the crowd that the future of Foursquare isn’t the check-in. Instead, it’s two completely separate activities that now live in two different Foursquare-made apps.
Soon Foursquare will no longer be an app dominated by a check-in button. Indeed, it won’t even have one. Instead, the company is turning its flagship application into a Yelp-like location recommendation service that learns your behavior and sends you notifications on your phone it thinks you might find helpful.
For instance, if I regularly eat at burrito places in San Francisco, and I have Foursquare location service turned on, it will monitor those locations and learn where I go. Then, when I visit San Diego, Foursquare will send me a push notification for a burrito restaurant I might like.
The check-in will live in Swarm, Foursquare’s new social app—but that’s not the main focus of the app, either. Instead, Swarm is meant to help you find nearby friends and make plans, thanks to the ambient location services knowing where you are at all times. If you have that turned on, your friends can tell which neighborhood you’re in.
See Also: Why Swarm Won’t Save Foursquare
Social networking isn’t the future for Foursquare. Its robust places database rivals Google’s, and, with over 65,000 apps using Foursquare’s places API, the amount of location data the company has is huge.
Crowley said that people regularly ask him how to leverage that location data, including small businesses, journalists, and city officials. For instance, urban planners look at check-in data as they build out cities and suburban areas, he said.
The Potential Of Empowering Business
This radical change to Foursquare’s product comes at a time when the business finally seems to be hitting its stride.
“In the first two quarters of this year, we’ll make more money than we did all of last year,” he said.
Each check-in on Foursquare—soon, on Swarm—contributes to what Crowley calls “venue polygons.” These location shapes define a specific business or place, and can be used to create markers for geofences that will be able to tell when you’ve entered a specific location.
At this week’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, many people expected Apple to talk about iBeacon, its Bluetooth-powered product that can alert shoppers to deals or recommendations, as well as allow people to make payments from their smartphones, when they enter a place of business, or even a particular section of a store. Apple didn’t announce any information about iBeacon this week, but at ReadWriteMix, Crowley talked about Foursquare’s potential to provide businesses with similar options.
Where iBeacon depends on Bluetooth transmitters which can transmit data to a smartphone, Crowley says Foursquare has the capabilities to map places purely through its software and data, without draining people’s smartphone batteries. And it also won’t require small-business owners to place new devices in their stores.
“We think about this: How can we do what iBeacon is doing, but do it without having to ask people to install stuff in their store?” he said.
The hardware can be cumbersome, and it’s still not widely adopted. If Foursquare can offer similar capabilities by leveraging smartphone location data and partnering with different businesses, people might soon be able to step into a store, read a suggestion, and make a purchase, all from the palm of their hand—and the business wouldn’t have to do much at all.
Of course, Crowley’s vision for a Foursquare that tracks your ambient location data and knows where you are at all times brings up serious privacy concerns. As more people become wary of sharing private data with both friends and social networks, the question becomes whether people want or need a service that is all-knowing, and all-tracking.
“Our intent is to make these magical pieces of software that teach you about the world,” Crowley said.
On both Foursquare and Swarm, you can turn the ambient location sharing off—but, of course, that takes away from some of the benefits you get by downloading them in the first place. Like any other social network, if you want to use Foursquare or Swarm for convenience, you’ll have to trust your data to the company. For some, it’s worth it. But others will never be convinced that allowing both Foursquare and friends to know where they are at all times is a good idea.
Just before the end of the event, Crowley told the audience he wants their feedback, and it’s important to the company to better understand how people use Foursquare, and learn what problems they perceive.
“If anyone thinks we’re doing something we shouldn’t, I hope you call us out on it,” he said.
Image via Selena Larson for ReadWrite