Location Is Not About Checking In

Update 4/17/11

I came across a great article in my Twitter stream today from Read Write Web talking about how check ins per user are declining rapidly.  This is definitely a piece worth reading if you want to understand where location is going.  If you haven’t already, read the piece I’ve written below, then come back and read through this one.

2011: The Year The Check In Died (Read Write Web)

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We’re so early when it comes to location, most of the world still doesn’t have a device they keep on them at all times which pinpoints their position on this earth.  That said, we’re starting to see some of these tools take shape and how we’ll be interacting with them down the road.  It’s been amazing to see over the past year or two the innovative things brilliant people are producing given the iOS and Android mobile platforms, especially when it comes to location.

I’ve been a user of Foursquare for over a year and a half now, but I continue to wonder when I’ll start to see any real value from it beyond literally telling people where I am on Twitter.  It makes it easy for me to tell people what I’m interested in and what I’m doing, but I could just as easily tell them I’m at the rink playing hockey without Foursquare.  I’m not commenting on anything regarding Foursquare’s business, they have been insanely successful and the user base is growing like a weed.  And I continue to use it, hoping that at some point I’ll have that moment when I realize why.

But as I’ve used some of these services that allow you to check into places once you’re already there, like Facebook, or Gowalla, I’ve come to realize that this really isn’t all that valuable to the user, at least not yet.  I can definitely see down the road, all of the data that I am producing when it comes to these check ins playing a major role in someone giving me recommendations for where to go or eat next.  This is certainly a big data problem, but I have no doubt someone will solve it.  Thus far no one has done a great job, the Foursquare explore feature just doesn’t cut the mustard, yet.

My question is though, if the value of the check in is in compiling a graph of where you’ve been in order to make recommendations for where you should go next, why do I need to manually check in to a place?  Why can’t make phone just keep track of where I am and put that into the graph, it doesn’t have to be shared, just keep track of it and use that data.  I’m just not getting anything out of sharing where I am with a small social graph of my friends.  So I’m at restaurant X on Friday night, who cares, it’s too late for my friends to come join me, I’m already there.

And the game feature, really?  Do I really care who scored more points on Foursquare this week?  The answer is no.  Now, game mechanics are extremely important, and kudos for the Foursquare guys for trying to incorporate this, but I highly doubt many get value from it.

But Foursquare is obviously only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to location.  Right now, they rule the post location world.  But there are two other time frames to think about here, before location, and at location.  There are some really awesome things going on right now in these two categories that I find much more interesting and useful than Foursquare.

Let’s start with Color.  If you haven’t used this app yet with your friends at a party or a sporting event, do so, immediately.  Color is taking advantage of being able to share data, in their case photos, across multiple devices which are at the same location at the same time.  So you take a picture, and all of the people who are there within a period of time can see that picture in their app, along with their pictures, and all of the other people around you taking pictures.  No more sending photos of that birthday party back and forth the next morning via e-mail, if you were there, you have them already.

This is a great example of value while you’re at a location.  It doesn’t involve checking into a place, it involves how you interact with people when you’re there.  It’s not about broadcasting what you’re doing to the world, it’s about interacting with the people who are sharing a similar experience, that’s really powerful.  Many people will bemoan the 41 million dollars that Color raised pre-launch.  They deserved it, it’s a huge idea, and had I been in those vc’s shoes I would have invested as well.  Some ideas are great but have a small potential user base given the idea’s niche.  This is a monster idea with a monster potential user base.

Color is really the only app that I’ve played with which provides value using location to provide great value.  But this time segment is obviously the hardest as it involves the interaction of people, or people and things, at a specific place at a specific time.

What I’m more interested in right now, and what I see as having more immediate value to the user, is pre-location.  Let’s say it’s Friday afternoon and I want to find something to do that night.  Given the tools that I have, or as I’ll show you in a minute, had, access to, I would probably send around a group text message to my friends, or an e-mail to a bunch of them asking if anyone want to grab dinner or meet at the bar.  This doesn’t work that well, e-mails get lost in the shuffle, and I find text messages to be stupid but for very short interactions in place of a phone call.

So there’s got to be a better way, and there is, the guys at ImUp4 have just created a great app that helps you coordinate your social life with your friends.  When I talk about pre-location, this is what I mean, tools that help you plan where to go and what to do with your social graph.  This is much more valuable to me than telling people where I am.  This connects me with people, this creates more experiences for me with the people I want to hang out with.

Calendars are also a powerful thing, but it has only been recently that your calendar become social and open.  There are definitely things on my calendar that I don’t want to be open to my social graph, like certain business meetings, or personal events.  A simple “busy” sign in that block on the calendar suffices.  But the rest of it, why not let everyone know where I’m headed to dinner on Friday night with a group of friends, maybe they’ll decide to join in.  A social calendar is a powerful thing, and if I’m at Google, which has probably the most used calendar application in the world, and I want to break into social in a big way, this is it.  Make the Google calendar the center piece of social scheduling, have everything filter into it.  And on top of it, they get a major piece of location.

I also just got into Tungle.me, a site that allows people to schedule things with you on an open calendar.  Again, pre-location, very powerful.  They are going to have an amazing business with so much data.  How can we help people connect in the real world through online applications.  Amazing.

My girlfriend has founded a startup to organize all of the daily deals, vouchers, and event tickets you’ve bought inside an app, it’s called OhMyWallet, go sign up for the to be released private beta.  A major part of it though will be to socialize this buying activity within your social circle.  If I buy a deal for half off at the BBQ place down the street, right now I send an e-mail to my friends with a link asking if anyone wants to go with me.  It should be easier, and it will be, soon.  This is another aspect of pre-location, the buying of things for future use at a specific place.

Sites like Blippy have been trying to provide value out of sharing what you buy within a social context, but they’ve gone about it all wrong.  I don’t care that you just bought shampoo at the grocery store, and I don’t care what brand it is.  I do care that you just bought a deal for half off movie tickets which you will be using on Saturday night to see a movie I want to see, maybe I want to join you.  When it comes to the what you bought or what you are thinking about buying social graph, I only care about those things that I can experience with you.  Oh you bought Yankees tickets for Saturday, awesome, well if you’re going maybe I’ll go too.  Location + buying + social is REALLY powerful.

How about near field communication, the system that is about to enable cashless, cardless payments from your mobile device anywhere.  It would seem pretty easy to me to throw a location layer on top of what you are buying, if you opted in, and share that data with a social graph of your choosing.  This is an after the fact use of location, but I still see a powerful use for the sharing of this data.

Location is at such an early stage, and if you think social was powerful, man are you in for something when social gets hooked up with local.  Facebook connected us with our old high school friends who now live in Portland.  Ok, that was great, but it’s only great within the confines of me staring at someone else’s life through a computer screen.  I continue to believe that the true promise of social is not to connect us with people we don’t interact with in the real world often, but to connect us better with people that we will interactive with, at specific places and times.

My advice, as I continue to preach, as the pace of innovation increases, you must be open to trying everything, don’t become overwhelmed thinking that you can’t keep up or that there isn’t room for one more application in your life.  Don’t be cynical, there are amazing things on the way.

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