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)