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 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,, 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, Loopt, Rummble, 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.