Why Gowalla and Foursquare are kicking Google’s ass in location – The check-in model

The model that is quickly emerging as the de-facto model for location updates is the so called check-in model.

Contrary to the  always-on, automatically updating friend tracking model used by services like Google Latitude and Loopt, that has been prophesized and expected to take off for years,  the check-in model used by services such as Gowalla, Foursquare and MyTown lets a user manually and deliberately “check in” to an exact/discrete location and actively update friends and others about it.

You could argue that this is not really a new model at all, that it is in fact exactly what Dennis Crowley (now of Foursquare) did over SMS and Wap with his previous company Dodgeball (acquired by Google in May 2005). But for one reason or another, Google did nothing with Dodgeball and it seems like everyone went back to focussing on the prophecy of the always-on friend tracking model for the subsequent years.

Why haven’t the friend tracking services taken off?

  • Until recently, you could argue that it was because there was not critical mass of technically capable devices to get the network started. With the adoption of GPS enabled iPhones, Androids, Blackberries and Nokias etc, that argument doesn’t hold anymore.
  • That leaves the argument that people are simply not prepared to share their location with a bigger group of people, it’s too private. Well, the screaming adoption of these new check-in services, that are actually very public, prove that this was not true either.

To me, it is clear that it was the location model that was wrong. So what is the difference?

What the check-in model solves:

  1. Privacy: With the tracking model, as soon as I friend someone, I will have to go through the mental exercise of thinking if I REALLY want to share all my future locations with this person, which is very hard to do since I don’t know what they will be doing in the future. Alternatively, I’ll have to set different resolutions on different people and remember to turn some or all of them off when I go certain places. The check-in model obviously solves this by way of the model itself, pushing an update is always a deliberate event.
  2. Accuracy: It may seem intutive at first that location information doesn’t have to be very accurate to be useful, This also rhymes well with the fact that you expect people to be more concerned about their privacy the more accurate it is (the reason Google Latitude offers city level-only filters). In reality though, I find it to be totally the opposite. Actually, to be useful at all, the location information has to be super accurate, down to single meters and it has to include altitude. Looking at a dot on a map with an error of  +/-100 meters or so (which is best case, when you’re outside in GPS view) doesn’t tell me very much at all. I want to know if you’re in a ski slope, a particular café/pub or a department store and which floor  and shop of the department store you’re in. The technology to automatically deduce this with sensors and local directory services simply isn’t there yet, and won’t be for a long time.As low-tech as it may seem, the check-in services solve this in a beatiful way, by using the device’s sensors to present a list of adjacent exact/discrete and canonical locations and then letting the user do the “last mile” positioning manually, by choosing one of these. This beatifully solves the problem of getting infinite resolution in both x,y and z axis. It obviously requires a huge amount of discrete locations to check-in to, but as these services let’s you quickly create such locations, if you find yourself on the corner of Broadway and 5th and it doesn’t exist as a discrete location yet, you can simply create it.
  3. Context: Even if the resolution deduced by the sensors would somehow be good enough. If I don’t know that particualar spot myself, an X on a map somewhere doesn’t tell me anything about where that person really is. Is it a hotel, café, store, ski slope etc? Of course, clever mapping to local directory services can attempt to solve some of this, but it will take a loooong time before they will automatically tell me that “Eric is at the skate board ramp in central park” (as opposed to him being at the ice rink 10 m north of it). Not to speak of the complete loss of  Z axes when you go into a 10 story building. The fact that the discrete locations are man made, (but still typed, making them machine readable) means that I get clear text context to that specific location apart from just it’s coordinates.
  4. Update frequency: A constantly tracking service has the generic problem of not knowing when a friend of mine does something interesting or news worthy that I might want to know about (which is likely a tiny fraction of the time that I’m tracking him/her). That results in me constantly having to check the service and all my friend’s locations, making the likelihood of any actual serendipity extremely small. The model of deliberate updates solves this by it’s design and allows for both pushed updates to friends and posting to social networks.

As the fit with services such as Twitter and Facebook are so obvious, I’d expect to see some acquisitions fairly early in 2010

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12 2009

14 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    Nice observation. I think though, in addition to this, it’s also about how playful and fun Gowalla and Foursquare are, the way they reward you in tiny but personally meaningful ways.

    • Gustav #

      @Mike Agreed, the gaming and discovery dynamics of these services are very important and probably help the proliferation of registered locations and people constantly checking in a lot. Personally, I mostly use them for location updates and don’t engage in the gaming part very much, so I’m not the right person to judge the importance of this.

  2. 3

    Gustav, excellent observation about importance of accuracy. Now that you said that, it’s obvious to me that automatic models won’t have chance, because of the dual-edged sword of accuracy. I previously thought that less accurate information is a great as it solves privacy and gives you an ability to pivot (e.g. I see that Gustav is in Södermalm, I call you and we agree to meet), but based on my experience with Jaiku Mobile, it never really happened.

    • Gustav #

      @Teemu Thanks for sharing your experience, I’ve been having the same “lack of serendipity” with these previous generation services in spite of trying pretty hard. Was actually rather negative to the check-in services before I tried it. The engineer in me felt it was too low tech :-)

  3. 5

    I love how many of us are thinking of geolocation and how it can be applied this year. Also really enjoy your focus on the difference between always on and always off location tagging.

  4. 6

    Great post!

    I’m really excited about these location based services.

    Personally I’d love to also see an “auto checkin” facility rather than me having to do this manually all the time but I can see why this is not yet possible due to GPS accuracy. I wonder if there is any ability of devices to be triangulated via bluetooth or wifi – yeah, I’m sure there must be – ideal for the ‘last mile’ as you call it.

    You also hit the nail on the head with “directory services” – we do need to map GEO to “things” that are available to do – even better when these “things” can be filtered/tuned to our likes etc.

    This is a very, very interesting area and there are certainly many killer applications lurking in the wings :)


    P.s. Sorry if any typos – am on my BB

    P.p.s. I’m currently working on a mini app which allows me to checkin to FourSquare venues via Twitter (which is my preferred “public information” allowed channel)

    • Gustav #

      @Joel Thanks for the comment and kind words. I Agree, auto check-in to specific places (that you’re prepared to share publically) is interesting if the technology gets good enough to do it well, sort of a “per location” privacy model, rather than “per person” model.

      @Leslie Thanks for the comment

  5. 8

    Hi Gustav,

    I agree that these services will take off in 2010.

    It aligns perfectly with the social media model of sharing..the new form of ambient intimacy.

    But I do think the “gaming” element is of major importance to the adoption rate and has been instrumental in helping these tools reach their adoption tipping point.

    People are proud that they have earned a certain status, whether it be a founder on Gowalla or Superstar on FourSquare. I constantly see twitter posts about attaining these levels.

    Personally, I don’t think either tool has reached their potential, tho I did see Foursquare offer me a discount at a nearby restaurant when I checked into Emporio in Nolita last week–very smart.

    I’m thinking special offers, discounts, even Gowalla dollars…more than silly bags of swag or badges. I’m sure restaurants, supermarkets, auto rental places..you name it..would be ripe for offering goodies to frequent visitors.

    Basically, the model would be Gowalla Honors or Foursquare Members Points.

    I bet you’ll see that very soon. Too bad I don’t work there!


  6. 9

    @gustav – ok, by “per location privacy model” you mean that I can indicate “don’t ever announce/share that I’m in STORE X” – yep, these kind of rules will need to be in place to co-exist with the personal modal (i.e. both privacy settings are taken into account before announcing).

    @heather – I think the gaming element is great BUT i believe the holy grail here is where this technology allows for a super seamless rewards system. There was s a great article on Mashable about this other day – an example of where “real world” are starting to tap into this.


    It looks as well as if it is not-rocket science to create a “box” which could be deployed in stores which could triangulate based on WIFI/BLUETOOTH/RFID etc – this means (privacy allowing) you could check in to the “last mile” automatically. The things is this: stores WANT this data and it is in their interest to create a rewards scheme which takes advantage of this data – which is only good news for consumers.

    Really excited about this technology.


  7. 10

    Hi Gustav
    Great observations! I think you are on the right track. Sharing is a social thing. The position is a social object sometimes. You want people to know. Having a GPS or a cellID look-up take your mapview to the spot and making an accurate check-in is really good. I think we will se variations to this as well. Just checking in that we are in a certain part of town or so. That is great as well sometimes. When we want share that. Maybe we will see combinations of check-ins and other activities. Taking a photo, buying something, texting, measure a thing or any other social object.

    What about prize? The continues friend tracking (pulling) could be costly maybe. Maybe the guys running pull based services been hesitant to make/have it free?

    Next thought could be the so called context servers (presence servers). Maybe that wasnt a great idea? Maybe sharing between services getting your pushed activites is better. A distributed solution.


    • Gustav #

      @Tor, Thanks for the comment. Regarding distributed/open solutions vs specific services. My personal opinion is that proprietary services by individual companies are good, even necessary, to push the envelope, they can innovate without waiting for standards etc, so they are fast. They lead the way and spark competition. Eventually however, more open system will likely take over from these early ones, as the industry comes together around standards etc.

      @Joel Yeah, the retail feedback, reward system and voluntary customer interaction loop between users and businesses they visit is a _really_ interesting part of this, that is just starting to happen (like the restaurants offering discount), you’re totally right that this is a potential holy grail for businesses, it sure beats the hell out of all of the failed coupon schemes I’ve seen over the years. Very exciting!

      @Heather, Yes, the gaming/reputation element has probably been critical in getting people to “land rush” and really have an incentive to put as many new spots on the map as possible. People very seldom work for free, and reputation is a very strong reward. I also don’t think that these services are close to their potential yet. Just think of the databases they are creating and how much more useful it suddenly is to look up nearby establishments on Foursquare/Gowalla, then using Google Maps/Local/business listings, Google’s listings are not even close to the volume, accuracy and freshness that these services have. Guess who I think is an acquisition target for Google, Microsoft, Yahoo in 2010…. :)

  8. 12

    Hi Gustav,
    nice observations. However, I wonder if the argument that we have handsets capable of providing always-on status is really true. In my handset for example, if I let the GPS on all the time, the battery will run out very fast and because of that I tend to leave it off.

  9. 13

    I think the “check-in” model offers the advantage of meeting two of the default conditions outlined by Adam Greenfield for ubiquitous computing.

    1) It defaults to conservation of face: “Ubiquitous systems must not act in such a manner as would unduly embarrass or humiliate users, or expose them to ridicule or social opprobrium, in the course of normal operations” (p. 240).

    2) It defaults to deniability: “Ubiquitous systems must offer users the ability to opt out, always and at any point” (p. 246).

    I wrote about this a few years back after reading Everyware.


    • Gustav #

      @Larry Yes, as Danah Boyd says, plausible deniability is essential in all social services. The check-in model adheres to that.


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