The Foursquare squeeze: will it survive to check in on 2011?

Fun comic about checkins on various location-based services

Foursquare logo

Foursquare (info about it on Crunchbase) deserves a lot of credit. It introduced the “check in” gesture to the industry. It changed location-based services and showed us a new game, one that’s very popular (it has about 300,000 users, and among my friends in the tech industry, is the most popular among industry insiders). It also brought us a new kind of serendipitous meeting and a new kind of serendipitous set of experiences.

The problem is that first mover rarely wins. In fact, Foursquare’s team intimately knows this. Why? Because they developed Dodgeball which was the hot thing among the San Francisco cool tech kid crowd back in 2006. You know that they lost out to Twitter (the common belief is that they lost because Google, who purchased Dodgeball, squandered their lead and didn’t improve the service, but I think there was something else at work too: later movers get the advantage of learning from the first mover).

Booyah logo

We’re already seeing this happen. Booyah’s MyTown (info about Booyah on CrunchBase) is a location-based game that copied Foursquare’s “check in” metaphor, but already has more users, 600,000, and a user base that’s using their service for more minutes each (MyTown’s CEO told me in an interview that the average time spent on its service is 50 minutes per day, which is incredible). The interview with Booyah’s CEO, Keith Lee, is embedded above or you can watch it on YouTube here.

Not to mention that the much bigger and more recognizeable Yelp has added the check-in metaphor too, which shows that Foursquare’s competition is willing to copy its best features pretty quickly.

Today we learned that Facebook may be planning to also adding “check-in” location services.

I’ve been hearing from Google that they are preparing a series of social software moves. Just this week Google turned on Social Circles, which show you your social graph and all the services that your friends have added to their Google Profile. You can see my Google Profile here, and you’ll see I’ve added a TON of social services to my profile along the right side, these all show up in Google’s Social Circles.

Gowalla logo

Anyway, the point is that Foursquare is being squeezed, both from innovative startups like Booyah and Gowalla (Gowalla has the nicest UI, and 100,000 users, you can see more info about Gowalla on Crunchbase) and from bigger players like Yelp, and soon to be Facebook and Google.

Let’s analyze the squeeze:

1. Serendipitous discovery of new things around you. When I use Foursquare to check in, there’s a tab called “tips” which show you things other members have told you to try near you (this is my favorite feature in Foursquare, when I checked into Foursquare in Paris, for instance, someone told me that one of the best French bakeries was within walking distance of where I was staying). Right now Foursquare is the only one to do this, but Facebook has far far far more people, so if they turned on such a feature they would INSTANTLY have more “tips.” Yelp also has far far more people, but hasn’t quite figured out how to bring us great serendipitous discovery. Yelp is better if you know what you want to do near you, but often I get someplace and I am looking to have a new experience and Yelp just doesn’t do well there.

2. Serendipitous meetings with people. Often I’ll check in on Foursquare, see someone I want to meet is nearby, and I’ll text them or tweet them and say “I’m in your neighborhood, want to get together?” I also have had TONS of meetings where other people do that to me. Foursquare has become my favorite rolodex. If you add me to your Foursquare you’ll be able to call me, text me, email me, Facebook me, or tweet me, all from the Foursquare UI. Right now Foursquare is way ahead here for me, because it has the tech insiders using it, but look for Yelp, Facebook, and Google to quickly take away that early advantage. I don’t have a single person on Foursquare that I care about, for instance, that isn’t also on Facebook.

3. Location-based gameplay. It’s fun to check in at the local coffee place, learn that I’ve taken the mayorship away from my friend Francine Hardaway, and get some points or badges for doing that. Why is this important? Because it’s simply freaky to share your location with the public. I don’t like Google’s Latitude for this reason. If I run Latitude all the time you’ll see EVERYWHERE I go. GPS is so good lately you will be able to see when I go into specific stores, or even bathrooms in malls. Ewww. Even worse, though, is that Latitude kills my battery on my iPhone or Android-based devices, so I usually don’t run it (not to mention that on iPhone you can’t run it and do other things at same time). Foursquare said “hell with” that kind of “follow me around” application. They, instead, came up with the “Check in” metaphor which, in my usage, is a lot more controllable, a lot less freaky, and lets you still have the serendipitous meetings that can happen when people know where you are. The thing is, Booyah was started by people who grew up in the game industry (in the video you’ll see all the games their founders have helped other companies build) and Booyah already has more users because, well, it’s a more completely thought out game.

4. Cross-platform availability. Foursquare is ahead here, with clients on desktop, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Symbian. But, does that really matter that much? Especially if Facebook or Google get into this location-based service game?

These are the three areas that I am watching with these location-based services. So far I see that Foursquare is my favorite today, but is getting squeezed and that squeeze is going to get a LOT tighter this year. Will be interesting to see how Foursquare reacts and what it does to keep me as an engaged superuser.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

33 thoughts on “The Foursquare squeeze: will it survive to check in on 2011?

  1. What I miss both in Foursquare and Gowalla is even more engagement for the user to create something unique, leave a story or an image on a certain location to literally change and recreate the daily world we are living in. That connected with Micro payments, like somebody drops a wonderful photo on a certain location and somebody else checking in could buy it for a couple of Cent. That could work with other information as well. I learned of two other services going in similar directions to lets the user create images/and/or notes, these are http://flook.it and http://blockchalk.com
    I tested Google Latitude and are adding new tools recently, like the Google Location History Tracker, which is not public.

  2. What I miss both in Foursquare and Gowalla is even more engagement for the user to create something unique, leave a story or an image on a certain location to literally change and recreate the daily world we are living in. That connected with Micro payments, like somebody drops a wonderful photo on a certain location and somebody else checking in could buy it for a couple of Cent. That could work with other information as well. I learned of two other services going in similar directions to lets the user create images/and/or notes, these are http://flook.it and http://blockchalk.com
    I tested Google Latitude and are adding new tools recently, like the Google Location History Tracker, which is not public.

  3. I'm still in the “If I want to meet someone somewhere, I'll call them on the phone and make an appointment” mode. I don't see this changing for me, or the vast majority of people, even those on Twitter and Facebook, anytime soon.

  4. I'm exhausted from checking in everywhere and still managing to have meetings:-) I can't wait until the M&A, convergence, or whatever it is that leaves us with fewer choices.

  5. There's a good point here that the first is rarely the last. But in this case, the founders of Foursquare, as you mention, were the founders of Dodgeball. Experience-wise, this is Dodgeball 2.0 for Mr. Crowley. (Disclosure: I knew him personally about 15 years ago and we communicate today occasionally via e-mail and Twitter.) In both cases, Mr. Crowley saw the value in real-time microblogging as a means to keep people connected and moved in to create a market and demand. He understands the value of game mechanics in making this more than just another “What am I doing right this very instant” service. In addition, there is a value-add for the “venues” to obtain and utilize Foursquare's analytics to track actual feet in the store and what social, impression, or CPC channels are working for them. The key to success for Foursquare will be its ability to continue to innovate its UX for users and venue owners.

    You've given a lot of positive ink here to Foursquare over the past 10 months, so I know this post isn't a slam, but rather a point that it may not outlast some others. That may be true in the end, but don't be so quick to count Foursquare out!

  6. Just to say about the Android + Google Latitude comment. As far as I know, Latitude on Android devices just uses the cell tower location when Maps isn't running. So the battery shouldn't get drained that much, and your location won't be quite as obvious. If you leave the Maps application running, then yes, your battery will drain quickly and you will have a more accurate location saved into Latitude

  7. I've been experimenting with Gowalla, Rally, CauseWorld and Foursquare for a while now. Like Heather I turned off notifications from my friends except when we're meeting and rarely post to Facebook so's not to drive everybody crazy. I prefer Gowalla's UI but Foursquare is the one I tell clients to use by posting tips about their businesses so users find them when they are in the area.
    These apps are popping up all over the place, and let's not forget the aptly named Stalqr…..

  8. great blog post. i agree with the social discovery of venues & tips from friends, and also finding out where my friends are. I hope that these guys do well since they pioneered the check-in, but as always you have to keep innovating to stay on top.

  9. I had been using both 4square and gowalla for a couple of months. It was interesting because very few people were using it. Now when I check my Quarantine filter, it is filled with checkins about people I don't know that well and don't care where they are. I've stopped posting to Facebook but now many of my friends are posting, and it's becoming obnoxious. I love the premise, but the UX of both tools is awful, and they have to figure out how to scale the service so it doesn't alienate early adopters like myself. We are the connectors, and I will certainly suggest no more of my friends join. PS the cartoon is right on. My friends have made it clear they are not amused at my ignoring them while I insist on checking in to all my services.

  10. With regards to MyTown, how do you add friends there? And how did they get so many users spending 50 minutes on average? That is super long. Pretty soon I will have to choose one to use out of the three. Right now Foursquare is leading.

  11. I started with Gowalla because it allowed me to, where previously Foursquare did not have my town. Now I use both. One thing I have found to be interesting is being in a less technological area I was surprised to see their are five people in a 15 mile radius using these.

    For me it is less of the game aspect and more of a connection. Again even though i'm near the state capitol of PA, in some cases we seem like hickville. I read about the possibilities and look forward to what is in store but at this point I just find it fun to see who else is in the area visiting where I visit.

  12. Like any innovative app it is up to the team to push forward and improve on their existing position. Foursquare is definitely dominating this market from a London perspective, even though Gowalla’s UI may be better, FSQ has it down.

    Definitely getting crowded, but they have the head start needed to carve out a sizeable market and strategic partnership.

  13. I just posted a on my blog (http://bit.ly/aafmda if interested) about the game aspect of Foursquare. It seems that everyone wants to add a check-in feature to their services while forgetting that one of the largest reasons Foursquare is popular is because of the game aspect of it. If I have to choose one service to login to, it will be Foursquare, particularly for this reason. I'm curious is other services will implement a gaming feature, or if they are simply banking on the size of their community.

    I fully expect to see some form of check-in aggregation app (think along the lines of HelloText) that allows you to check in to multiple services as long as their APIs allow it.

  14. The problem is that location based check-ins are just a feature of a social network. If Facebook adds this feature to its 350m user base, I don’t really see how foursquare, gowalla & co can become really really big. IMHO, strategically, it’s not a sustainable position.

  15. Still, the most dangerous player should be Google with its Google Maps + Street view. But They lost momentum and, you are right, Latitude is too intrusive.

  16. Wow….. I mean, do I have to say “booyah”? ed: these are the guys in Palo Alto. Anyone have a guess how they acquired so many users so quickly? This is not some thinly veiled marketing question… I just thought Foursquare was far and away the most popular. I think some of the networks like yelp and facebook are a bit different…. Foursquare is more of a game, while the others are meant to be functional?

    After this article I am slightly tempted to just stop checking in… ugh.

  17. I feel Facebook should acquire Foursquare, it would just make so much sense.
    But after what happened to Dodgeball, I doubt these guys are up for another acquisition.

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