Soon even your grandparents will know what a check-in is

Imagine you are at a restaurant with 20 people, both family members and friends. You pull out your smartphone and tell everybody that you quickly have to check-in. How many of the people around you would understand what it is that you are doing?

As we have written about before, the check-in has become the default way for people using mobile services such as foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite or Loopt to tell the world where they are. Instead of the mobile phone monitoring their location automatically and publishing their whereabouts, users actively press the check-in button when they feel comfortable revealing their location.

But so far, these kind of location based apps have solely been an Early Adopter phenomenon, reaching only a few million people around the world (foursquare has less than 3 million users, Gowalla doesn’t even have 500.000 yet). Hence, the majority of people won’t associate the check-in term with web apps but rather with airports where checking in means leaving your luggage and getting your boarding pass.

Do the test: Ask your family, friends and colleagues what a check-in is. And then wait a year and do it again. You can be sure that the result will be significantly different. Why? Because Facebook, the world’s biggest social network with more than 500 million active users has recently launched a check-in feature called Facebook Places. At the end of last week the site started to roll-out the feature to users in the US, but we don’t expect it to take more than a few weeks or month to see the Places feature launching globally.

With Places, Facebook has finally done what many observers of the Internet for a long time have expected to happen: It has launched its own location service based around a check-in functionality. The feature works exactly as you would imagine: Depending on your coordinates you get a list of locations around you where you can check-in, or if the location does not exist yet you can add it. Every location has its own profile page which shows recent check-ins of other people.

Additionally, Facebook gives you an overview about where you friends are at the moment, making it much easier to meet up with some of your contacts who might be close to your current location.

By betting on the location trend, Facebook is bringing the concept of checking in and seeing where your friends are to the mainstream. So far, the biggest problem with the smaller services mentioned above is that not many people do use them, and for most users I know, the foursquare and Gowalla friends mainly consist of their Twitter peers, who not necessarily are their close friends. In fact, only very few of my “real” friends are using location based services, which means that I hardly benefit from the capabilities location based apps do offer in theory.

But I expect this to change, since almost all of my friends are on Facebook, and lots of them do own a smartphone. After having launched Places on a global scale, it won’t take too long until many of your closer friends will have tried the new feature, giving everyone new insights about favourite places and interesting locations. And since Facebook is providing existing location apps with a new API to integrate their functionality with Facebook Places, loyal foursquare or Gowalla users can continue to check-in with those services and will see their Facebook friends’ check-ins as well.

It’s for sure that Facebook embracing the check-in concept won’t be the final evolution step of location based services (background monitoring and automatic check-ins at favourite locations using Geofencing will become common in the future). But the move means that the whole idea of telling other’s where you are by using your mobile phone is brought to the masses, and the check-in as term will become as common as other expressions introduced by web services such as “to google” (which in several European languages is synonymously used for doing a web search) or “to poke”.

While we at Twingly can’t wait to try the new Facebook Places feature, it will be interesting to see how Facebook handles the inevitable privacy-related user backclash. While the possibility of telling all your friends where you for some users is reason enough to be concerned, Facebook didn’t make it easier for them by adding a potentially questionable feature which lets you check-in your Facebook friends (it’s required though that you have checked in at the same location). It’s possible to deactivate this feature but in best Facebook tradition the site made this process more complicated than necessary.

We’ll see if the feature will be abused by some who find it funny to check-in at some dubious location just to be able to tag their friends as well. It’s not impossible that Facebook might do some fine-tuning with Places before rolling it out globally. But in any case it’s only a matter of time until even your grandparents will understand what you mean when you tell them that you have to check-in.

/Martin Weigert

Check-in, Multitasking & Geofencing: The Social Web becomes location aware

We have written before about the rise of location based services (lbs), those fascinating and playful apps like Foursquare or Gowalla that let you check-in at specific locations, earn points, badges, become the mayor and maybe even get a discount at the store you are checking in.

The process of checking-in actually has become the default feature for most of today’s location based services. But why did that happen? Well, there are two main reasons:

The need to perform a check-in every time you want to publish your location guarantees you that your whereabouts are not becoming public if you don’t want that. So the check-in works even for those people with higher privacy preferences.

The second reason is a technical one. Until now, the iPhone has been the leading platform for location based apps, simply because iPhone users are the most curious and app avid ones. But until a few days ago, the iPhone didn’t support multitasking, so people were not able to use several applications at the same time. Any app that would have wanted to monitor your location automatically would have had to be activated all the time, blocking other features of your iPhone. That of course was something no one wanted.

That Foursquare in early 2009 came up with the check-in solution was at least in some parts a practical decision to create a good and privacy aware user experience. Most other lbs followed Foursquare after some time and integrated check-in features, even those that existed before Foursquare, like Loopt and Brightkite.

But in the near future, things could change again. Because a few days ago, Apple released its newest version of the iPhone operative system, iOS4, which enables multitasking on iPhone 3GS and the new iPhone 4. That means that location based apps are now able to run in the background, and Loopt was actually one of the first to make use of this by including a “live location” functionality which permanently tracks where you are.

Since Android, the other big platform for app developers, has been multitasking-enabled for a long time, one can conclude that the technical obstacles for lbs are pretty much gone, and that the need of the check-in feature is no longer given from a hardware point of view. What is left are the privacy concerns.

Even though the number of Foursquare users increases by 100.000 a week, lbs still haven’t become a mass phenomenon yet, and the general doubts of many users to publish their location is definitely a crucial reason for that. Automatic background location without check-in would not really help to make potential users get used to the thought of telling everybody where they are.

But there is a technology that could both help to increase users trust into lbs and improve the overall user experience. It’s called Geofencing. A Geofence is a parameter for a specific geographic area. When a smart phone user leaves this area, he/she crosses the Geofence, which can trigger notifications and actions.

Geofencing has seen a small hype recently in the mobile and location world. Location providers like SimpleGeo or Location Labs offer functionality for startups to integrate Geofencing features into their applications, and even Silicon Valley icon Robert Scoble referred to Geofencing when he recently outlined his vision of how location based service will have developed until 2012.

Geofencing in combination with background location could spur a wave of innovation in the lbs field. Imagine for instance an auto check-out feature for services like Foursquare or Gowalla. In the current state, people are shown checked in to locations even though they already left hours ago. With Geofencing, an app could perform an auto check-out when the user crosses the Geofence, without publishing more info about his or her location.

Another example would be that an app could use background monitoring of users locations, unless they are in an area that they have selected the private mode for earlier, like 500 m around the house they are living in. And when they leave home and cross the Geofence, the app could ask if it should switch back to automatic location monitoring or not.

Location based services are still in their early days. The number of services integrated with location features will continue to explode, and after Twitter already has entered the location game, Facebook will follow soon, introducing millions of less experienced web users to the idea of lbs.

The check-in principle is not likely to disappear very soon. But we’ll probably see more combinations of check-in and background location functions with the support of Geofencing. Everything that web and tech enthusiastic users have been doing with the likes of Foursquare, Gowalla the past 12 month is nothing compared to how lbs will embrace us in the near future. The Social Web becomes location aware and won’t look the same anymore.

/Martin Weigert

(Illustration: stock.xchng)

The future of web and location based apps

We have written before about the rise and competition of location based social networks (lbs) that enable mobile web user to make actions based on their whereabouts, like checking in to a restaurant, club or store, receiving information about nearby locations or seeing where their friends are hanging out.

But the the big question is: Should that be everything? Even if users might benefit from seeing who else is a regular visitor of a location or from knowing that a good friend is close-by, and even if they might get rewards for checking in often at a specific shop, using applications like Foursquare or Gowalla is still mainly a pure fun activity without deeper purpose and nothing that really helps you improving your daily live. I’m sure the majority of lbs users would agree with me on that.

Fortunately we have Robert Scoble, the Silicon Valley uber-geek, who recently wrote a guest article for TechCrunch, outlining his vision of how location based services will work and interact with other apps two years from now. And his ideas are compelling.

Basically, Scoble sees Foursquare as the heart of an ecosystem of apps that serve users in different ways. Instead of just checking in with Foursquare (or any other location based service that you would want to see in Foursquare’s position), the app would be connected through APIs with other web services and could trigger actions on those external tools.

In Scoble’s world, Foursquare could help notify a meeting partner about when he (Scoble) approximately will arrive (via Glympse). It could make Plancast, a “check-in” service for future events, inform Scoble about upcoming events in the immediate vicinity, and it could initiate a concert ticket search with Siri, the personal assistant service bought by Apple.

So instead of users making a lot of manual tasks separated from each other, one app would automatically talk to another app, based on a person’s location.

Scoble continues to explain how this chain reaction of app requests could trigger Yelp, the US review site, to search for popular and positively reviewed restaurants close to the concert venue. Afterwards, he would count on Blippy and Expensify to provide credit card statements and expense reports.

What Scoble describes is the end of the “information silos”, which means all those neat web services many of us are using on a daily basis, but that don’t talk to each other, and that can’t leverage the information and data we are spreading on the web, since it is pushed into information silos and can’t get out there anymore.

Actually you don’t need to be Robert Scoble to see all this happening. The whole process has started years ago when the first consumer focused web tools got developer APIs. APIs are the tools that help to open and tear down the information silos. Service A will be able talk to service B which could connect to service C. Suddenly all the information you gave service B can be accessed by A and C – if you authorized them – and they can learn about your preferences and interests. Suddenly a check-in at Foursquare would be much more meaningful, because Yelp (as an example) could use this information to improve its own results, to adjust them to you and to provide you with assistance without you even having to enter a manual search query on their website.

Location based services would allow for a much more personalized web experience, and they could make people’s everyday life much easier.

But as everything, there is a flip side, too. One challenge is that since many services are connected and relying on each other, if one part of the system fails, the rest would be affected as well. The more parties and APIs are involved, the higher the risk that at any given time, at least one would be struggling.

A second concern is more a theoretical one. But I wonder what it would mean for mankind if people “outsource” more and more task to machines. Could it happen that we lose our capabilities of managing and handling the most simple issues because we have gotten used to that they are taken care of by computers?

I’m not sure if this actually is something to be concerned about. But it might be worth a thought. In any case, connected web apps have the potential to increase our quality of life in many ways. So I’m looking forward to 2012!

/Martin Weigert

(Illustration: stock.xchng)

The state of location based services: Gowalla vs Foursquare

There has been a lot of buzz recently surrounding location based services (lbs). The more people carry a smart phone, the more are starting to try out applications that make use of the phones integrated GPS, that present you locations around you, and that let you check in to those locations to show your contacts where you are hanging out.

Although not the first location based services around, Gowalla and Foursquare are the two start-ups that caught most of the social web crowds attention in recent month. Their user numbers are still low compared to huge social networking giants like Facebook or Twitter – Foursquare is said to have 600.000+ users, Gowalla has even less – but the huge media attention they are getting and the loyalty of existing users can be a sign for a bright future for these and other location based services.

The functionality of Gowalla and Fousquare is very similar. You use their mobile apps or sites on iPhone, Android or BlackBerry phones to check in at locations near you. The more often you do that, the higher you are ranked in the leader board, and the more badges you get giving you higher status. You can also see which other users recently did check in at a specific location, and at Foursquare, the one with most check-ins becomes “mayor” of that location.

The more actual friends you add as Gowalla and Foursquare contacts, the more fun it is to use the services, since you can also get notified through push messages when your friends are checking in somewhere. Then, these location based services show their real power by making it easier to meet up spontaneously with a buddy who might sit in a bar just 100 meters from where you are.

In the US where Gowalla and Foursquare have their origin, the companies already have started to partner up with retailers, bars and media companies to offer people with a lot of check-ins discounts, freebies or other incentives.  Obviously these location based services open up for a range of new marketing possibilities for vendors, helping them to get new customers and to reward the existing customers loyalty.

In Europe, Swedish grocery chain ICA was one of the first retailers to use Gowalla for promotion purposes, when recently encouraging people to check in at their new store in central Stockholm and promising an iPad for the person with most check-ins.

Overall, the differences between Gowalla and Foursquare are minor ones and mainly regarding the user interface. Except for one major aspect: Gowalla only lets you check in at locations where you actually are, whereas Foursquare doesn’t have this limitation – and thus can be easier gamed. Foursquare says it is working on that.

The similarity of the services has led to a situation where quite many people are using both apps for now, making it necessary to check in twice at each location, one time with Gowalla, and one time with Foursquare. Fortunately, check.in, a new mobile service developed by Brightkite, another location based social network, has come up with a solution for this problem by allowing users to check in at Gowalla, Foursquare and Brightkite simultaneously.

It’s not clear yet which of the two apps eventually will win the location race, or if it will be Brightkite, LooptRummble, or one of the many other competitors in this space. However, location is undoubtedly already one of the biggest web trends this year, and it’s going to become much bigger when the majority of people will swap their basic or feature phones for multifunctional smart phones.

Next time you see people pulling out their phones after arriving at your favourite bar, they could be checking in.