SiliconFilter

The Evolution of Foursquare: An Interview With Dennis Crowley

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Foursquare checked into our lives in 2009 and has rapidly grown its user base to 15-million, tripling in just over a year. And now the US-based service reports that just over half of its users reside overseas, largely in emerging market countries.

The social network is a piece of innovation that has won the hearts and minds of the fickle early-adopter crowd. It’s an online tool that plays in the rather hot and bubbly SoLoMo space. It’s a mobile-social network designed to give users information and recommendations about their immediate surroundings, allowing them to check in at venues.


This post first appeared on Memeburn and was written by Michelle Atagana. Memeburn is an award-winning site based in South Africa that tracks emerging technologies primarily in emerging markets, including the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. SiliconFilter occasionally features relevant posts from MemeBurn.


To say there is hype in this sector of the online world is an understatement, with start-ups proliferating in this space. SoLoMo is such a buzzword at the moment that it even prompted the respected Forrester Research CEO, George Colony, to say that these services will be “swept away” in a new “post-social era”. Late last year, Colony shocked everyone at a Le Web conference by outrightly dismissing Foursquare as “nonsense”.

Foursquare’s competitors are formidable. Look no further than Facebook, which sports its own check-in services in Facebook Places.

But Foursquare founder and CEO, Dennis Crowley, isn’t perturbed. This is a service that has “carved out a space”, and is showing no sign of slowing down.

Memeburn caught up with Crowley to talk about the company’s future, plans for emerging markets, and the beauty and future promise of Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

An early adopters’s game

Memeburn: You seem to have quite a following with early adopters, whereas when we look at Facebook, it has a much broader audience. Is that an intentional target market?

Dennis Crowley: It’s not intentional. I think it’s just how this stuff grows. Facebook started off with college campuses, Twitter was the early adopter tech crowd. A lot of people thought Foursquare would become half a million users and not go beyond that. There was a million and two million and five million and 10 million… I think it’s just a way that these things grow. If you think about it, Facebook is eight years old, Twitter’s five years old, whereas Foursquare is two years old, so we have a long way to go to get to those numbers. I feel pretty satisfied with the way we’ve been growing so far.

MB: Is there a strategy to grow beyond the early adopters?

DC: Yes, you know we have a lot of partnerships. We have a partnership with Orange, we do a lot of stuff with the New York Times and stuff for TV shows back in the States. One of the reasons we have a development guy in Europe now is to take advantage of all the opportunities there because it’s those things that will bring Foursquare to the masses.

MB: Looking at Foursquare fundamentally… what would motivate a user to check in on a regular basis?

DC: …it’s being able to see what our friends have been doing. A lot of people are using Foursquare just for its recommendation engine… [they would ask] like hey what should I do when I’m in this neighbourhood? You’ve got recommendations, you’ve got specials… you’ve got all those tips on the services as well, so people are motivated in different ways.

MB: Do you find that the novelty of wearing badges wears off after a while?

DC: Yes, badges are the thing that keeps people interested long enough to understand everything else that’s going on within the app, and you know they were designed that way and they’re very effective that way, so we’ll keep making changes because we want all users to be excited about badges. But I’m not surprised at all that people only use the badges for two months, but then they’re already hooked on the recommendation.

MB: You mentioned recently that you’re cutting down on badges — what does that mean exactly?

DC: So every single event should possibly have a badge, but that doesn’t make them special any more, so we like to think of badges as a thing you earn for interesting achievements, and not badges just for showing up. So when I say we’re cutting down, it’s more like we don’t do event badges but you do get the coffee badge for going to a lot of different coffee shops.

MB: Have you ever thought about expanding the game beyond just checking into places?

DC: Yes we thought about including a way to check-in to books, TV and music. But there are a whole lot of other start-ups doing that and I’d rather we just focus on location because it gives us a really good, strong focus. I think it’s very easy to get distracted by checking into everything… which is not what we want to do.

Emerging markets and beyond

MB: So what’s your emerging market plan? Not just for South America, but China and Indonesia?

DC: We’ve been thinking about our international plans a lot. About 50% of our users are outside the US and you know we have to be strategic about it because we’re still a relatively small company, we’re about a hundred people.

I know it seems big but for what we’re trying to do it’s small. We have one guy in Europe now, and we’ll see how that goes. We might expand to the Asia Pacific region, and expand to Latin America. We’re considering those things but we’re not ready to move onto that yet. We’re going to see how we do with one person in Europe almost in the same way that we did in San Francisco, and it turned into a twenty-person office. We’ll see what happens when we get one guy here and go to another couple of countries and see how that turns out.

MB: What’s your Africa traffic like?

DC: It’s not a huge growth area for us. Right now we’re seeing big growth in Indonesia, in Japan, and parts of Europe. We’ve seen a lot of activity in South Africa but we haven’t seen a lot of change across the entire continent, it’s something we’re keeping an eye on.

Mobile, social and the evolving platform

MB: We know that social-local-mobile is the big buzz. Do you think location-based services are the trend for the future or will it eventually pass?

DC: … location-based services are huge. It’s going to be part of everything we do, it’s going to be part of every social service, every recommendation service, services I can take advantage of, about where you’ve been, places you would like to go, all that stuff is valuable, it’s being entered into everything else.

People like Google Maps right? They use Google Maps all the time. If I can take Google Maps and put dots on where all your friends are all the time — I think that would be much more exciting.

MB: Do you foresee a time where Foursquare will be an HTML 5 app only?

DC: It could happen in the future, we have been doing experiments. HTML 5 apps are great but apps in appstores are still key… you’re starting to see more apps that use HTML 5 within the app, you’ll see something like that with Foursquare. A lot of the time you might not even see it, some of the app is HTML 5 and some of it is native control, the user doesn’t know the difference.

MB: As a company are you still betting on native apps?

DC: For now, yeah. Apps are the distribution platform, but whatever is in the app is up for grabs… the native Android controls and iPhone UX doesn’t really matter.

MB: What are your thoughts on the Windows phone?

DC: Yes we have an app for the Windows Phone. We worked with the folks from Microsoft to help build it. We’re starting to see more of that pick-up. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the new Nokia deal with Windows running on a Nokia platform. We hear from our users that the app works pretty well.

MB: And your views on the interface and the way Microsoft has rolled out the new phone?

DC: I think the phone is beautiful, it pushes the interface in really interesting ways. It’s fun to see people build Foursquare apps for that platform because they will be imagining what the UX looks like in a way that is different from what we imagined.

MB: I must say that I find the Blackberry app quite buggy. Is that something that you’d fix?

DC: BlackBerry can be a difficult platform to develop for because there are different handsets, environments, different screen sizes. But I think it’s [the Blackberry App] relatively stable. We have bugs from time-to-time on other devices as well such as Android and iPhone.

MB: And the future for Foursquare?

DC: Just to do a lot more of what we’re doing. One of the things we’re trying to do is get ideas out there for all the different types of products out there. Now we have to go back and make them a lot tighter and cleaner. I think we’ve carved out our space, this is what we want to do as a company and the rest is just to make sure that the rest of the world knows it.

MB: And your business model? Are you happy with revenues?

DC: Yes — we’re still at that phase now where we’re trying to grow as quickly as possible. It’s not about monetising immediately or becoming profitable, it’s building a huge audience and building an amazing product and then all the other stuff will work itself out. We do think a lot about the [business side], like having amazing partnerships with American Express. We’ve got more than 600 000 merchants that use Foursquare platforms.

MB: There seem to be two major routes to go — either a freemium model service or an advertising route. Do you have any preference or is it a case of both?

DC: Yes I think there’s a case for advertising that benefits the user. Peter Kafka from the Wall Street journal wrote a great piece which was: “Thank you Foursquare for this advertisement“, which was a living social deal about places he goes to all the time, and he’s like “this is great, this is exactly what targeted ads are supposed to be”.

I’m getting a deal, it’s targeted because it knows that I like these places, I’ve been there before, and you know that’s the direction we’re going’, it’s suddenly pushing you in the direction of things you like to do.

Image: Matthew Buckland



9:19 am


Five Apps and Web Services that Deserved More Attention in 2011

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For every hyped app or web service (think Foursquare, Quora etc.), there are at least a dozen of competitors out there that are often better, but never quite get the attention they deserve. At the end of every year, I round up some of my favorite apps and services that mostly flew under the radar of the tech press during the last twelve months, but that deserved a lot more attention. Last year, I featured my6sense (still alive and kicking), Pearltrees (growing steadily, just launched an iPad app), Producteev (also doing well this year) and EchoEcho (which got a nice investment led by Google Ventures earlier this year).

This list is obviously quite subjective, so feel free to chime in with your personal favorites in the comments.

Trover

I’ve never been a fan of check-in services like Foursquare, but I’m a big believer in location-based apps nevertheless. The reason I like Trover  (available for Android and iOS) is that it strips out all the unnecessary gamification crud and just plain focuses on letting you share and discover cool stuff around you. Instead of virtual badges, you simply send a friendly “thank you” to the person who first shared that cool place you found thanks to the app. While it focuses on sharing photos, there are no filters and nothing to distract you from what you really wanted to use the app for in the first place.

In my review earlier this year, I called it “the best location-based app you’re not using (yet).” Thankfully, more people have discovered the app since, but overall, it mostly flew under the radar this year.

Spool

With Apple adding reading lists to iOS and a lot of attention on Instapaper and Read It Later (though that service also doesn’t get the attention it deserves), time-shifted reading hit it big this year. Spool is the latest entry into this market and it’s quietly building a very competitive product which doesn’t just offer support for text, but also videos.

Another feature I really like about the app is automatic detection of multi-page articles. It doesn’t always work 100%, but often saves you a few clicks on sites like the New York Times, for example. There are also Chrome and Firefox extensions for Spool, which provide augmented links on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Techmeme. Given that the service is still new, though, it isn't integrated into any third-party apps yet, which is a bit of a problem if you want to switch from a well-supported service like Instapaper.

You can find my full review here.

Wunderlist

wunderlist_logo_150Everybody who owns a smartphone has probably downloaded a few task management apps at one point or another. My personal favorite is Wunderlist from Berlin-based development shop 6Wunderkinder. The company got an investment from Skype-founder Niklas Zennstrom in November, so it definitely popped up on some peoples’ radar this year, but while it got lots of traction, it never quite got the hype it deserved. The services’ apps and web services are beautifully designed and focus on simplicity over features.

This isn’t a tool for the hardcore Getting Things Done crowd (this isn’t OmniFocus, after all), but it’s among the best task management tools out there for those of us who just want to keep lists of things. The fact that it’s available virtually anywhere (Windows, Mac, Linux, Blackberry, iOS, Android and on the web), also gives it an edge over some of its competitors.

With Wunderkit, the company also plans to expand beyond its basic service next year, so keep an eye on the company’s blog.

(If you are looking for a more fully-featured service that includes support for small teams, by the way, take a look at Producteev, which was on this list last year and which added some nice new features over the last few months.)

Rhapsody

rhapsody_logo_200With all the talk about Spotify, MOG and Rdio, it’s easy to forget the granddaddy of all online music services: Rhapsody. When the service launched a full 10 years ago, it was among the first online music services to offer on-demand music streaming for a flat fee. Today, it can boast of being the largest on-demand music subscription service on the Internet, but it gets very little attention from the tech press (maybe because its legacy as a part of Real Networks is still a major turnoff for those of us who have been around the net for long enough). With 11 million songs and apps for every major mobile operating system (including support for offline caching), it’s worth taking note of and worth a try if you are looking for a subscription alternative to iTunes.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps and Windows Live Web Services

skydrive_logo_official_200It’s obviously not cool to like a Microsoft product (except for the Xbox and Kinect, I guess), but even though the tech press loves Google Apps, Gmail and (almost) anything else Google does, Microsoft’s web apps don’t get the attention they deserve outside of the Microsoft blogs.

All of Microsoft’s online products took a major step forward in 2011, though. The latest SkyDrive update, for example, makes Microsoft’s online storage service for more competitive with startups like DropBox. The Office Web Apps suite (and, by extension, the paid Office 365 solution for small businesses) offers a far better online editing experience and document fidelity than Google Docs (and include support for OneNote, the underrated star of the MS Office suite). Hotmail has massively improved thanks to adding features like Active Views

All of these services are worth another look, especially now that Microsoft is rumored to launch an iOS version of its productivity apps, too.



6:09 pm


Ducksboard: One Real-Time Dashboard for All Your Metrics

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If you run a website or web service – no matter whether it’s small or large – chances are you are constantly tracking numerous metrics to see how things are going: visits and pageviews, Twitter mentions, Facebook likes, how fast your pages are loading and numerous other statistics, all while managing customer support tickets and internal communication with your team. It doesn’t take much for this information to become overwhelming and close to unmanageable.

What if you could see all this info on just one page, though, with information that updates in real time? That’s exactly what Ducksboard does. The service provides you with a highly customizable dashboard that allows you to plug in about 45 data points (with more coming soon) and monitor them on just one screen.

If you are publisher, for example, you can monitor your Google Analytics data, your page load times from Chartbeat (or your real-time visitor numbers), the results of your latest email campaign on MailChimp and reactions to your latest story on Twitter all on one page.

ducksboard_large

Among the other supported services are Zendesk, Prefinery, GoSquared, Highrise, Lighhouse, Feedburner, Foursquare and Facebook (just showing likes on pages right now). Ducksboard also allows you to have multiple dashboards. This should be especially useful for those who manage multiple sites or services.

Setting up your dashboard shouldn’t take more than five minutes and given that most services now allow you to authenticate without providing your credentials to Ducksboard, your data should remain safe.

Sadly, Ducksboard is still in private beta. You can sign up for an invite on the service’s homepage or take a look at the real-time demo here.



5:59 pm


Kevin Rose’s Oink: Stop Rating Places – Rate the Stuff Inside Them Instead

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Oink, the first product to come out of Digg-founder Kevin Rose‘s Milk project, launched on iOS earlier this week. At this point, the thought of seeing yet another location-based app that lets you rate things may induce some involuntary yawning in you. After testing it for a while now, though, I have to say that while I was highly skeptical of trying yet another app in this space, Oink actually puts enough of a twist on the genre to be interesting and to become a potential challenger to similar services like Foursquare (or even Yelp) in the long run.

The big difference between Oink and Foursquare or Yelp is that Oink doesn’t focus on places so much as on the things inside them. Instead of rating a local restaurant, for example, you would rate the pizza you had there. While it uses your location to make it easier for you to tag your discoveries, it doesn’t bother you with pointless check-ins.

Oink ios discoverThe app features the usual fixings you would expect from this kind of service: an activity stream, the ability to discover popular things around you, access to your profile and, of course, the ability to add your own ratings, photos and comments. While the app is extremely well designed, though, the real game-changer here isn’t so much the app itself, but the idea that users care more about finding interesting things or the best coffee around than the best restaurant or store

Rate Anything

In many ways, adding this granularity to these kinds of apps is really the next evolutionary step. After all, that cool coffee shop where all the hipsters hang out with their Macbook Airs may make a mean espresso, but may not actually make that great iced coffee you really want right now. While it clearly looks forward, though, Oink is also a throwback to the old days of Web 2.0, as its tagging system lets users tag virtually anything with any tag without imposing any clear structure.

Oink also goes beyond location by allowing you to rate and tag virtually anything. There is plenty of talk about books and games on the system right now, for example.

As users rate more items related to tags they are using, they will gain “cred.” This ramification element may attract some of the more competitive folks out there, but there are no Foursquare-like discounts to be had yet (which in return means you don’t have to worry about retaining your mayorship either, of course).

Verdict

Overall, then, Oink puts enough of a twist on this genre to be interesting – something that can’t be said about most of the new entrants in this oversaturated market for ratings+photo sharing apps. As any new service, it suffers from the fact that there isn’t much of a community on it yet – especially if you don’t live in San Francisco – but I’ve got a feeling that it will quickly attract a very dedicated following.



5:30 pm


As Check-Ins Fizzle Out, Gowalla Pivots

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Check-in services like Gowalla and Foursquare were the most hyped kinds of apps of 2010, but for the most part, it has become pretty clear that mainstream users don’t care a lot about checking in. It makes sense then, that Gowalla today announced a major reshuffling of its feature set at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference in San Francisco today. Instead of focussing on checking in, the new Gowalla now puts an emphasis on sharing “stories” and building travel logs. Also among the new features are “guides,” which are “curated travel guides for numerous cities around the world.”

Just a few weeks ago, Gowalla also announced that it was planning to jettison most of its gaming features. The company clearly saw that its current feature set didn’t allow it to compete with FourSquare, which has become the largest player in this space (even though it, too, doesn’t have a lot of mainstream traction).

A Small Pivot for Gowalla – A Harbinger for the Check-In Space

What seems like a small pivot is actually a harbinger for the check-in space in general. Checking in is, at best, a feature and can’t be the central focus of a service as only a small minority of potential users will bother to check in when they get to a new location. What users do want to do, though, is to share photos (also a feature that the new Gowalla highlights) and their stories.

Gowalla’s move sounds like a smart pivot away from the basic check-in model and towards a more sustainable and interesting concept. Gowalla already had some travel-focused features in its earlier incarnations, but this new version pushes these ideas further. Thanks to these earlier features, Gowalla also has a number of partnerships with companies like National Geographic that will now also become partners around its “guides” feature.



7:21 pm


Beyond the Check-In Hype: Unmotivated Users [Infographic]

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Silicon Valley often falls in love with ideas that work great for geeks, early adopters and Robert Scoble. These ideas, however, often leave mainstream users cold. Check-in-based location sharing services like Foursquare, Gowalla and Co. are one of the most recent examples of this. The good folks behind the Social-Loco conference (which incidentally starts tomorrow) teamed up with digital agency Beyond to take a closer look at what could motivate consumers to start using these products. Today, according to these companies’ research, almost 50% of those who currently don’t use check-in apps simply have no motivation for doing so.

So what would motivate these users? According to this study then, if location-based services really want to get new users onto their services, they will have to focus on coupons for restaurants and cafes, or give users info about homes that are for sale in their area and tourist info about cities they visit. While most check-in apps focus on making it easier for users to find friends, the majority of mainstream consumers is not interested in this. Only 12% would be motivated to use a check-in app for this. Looking a bit deeper, it’s also worth noting that mainstream consumers are more likely to use Facebook Places, Groupon and Twitter (55%, 40% and 20% respectively) than Foursquare and its startup brethren.

Virtual Badges and Becoming Mayor? Mainstream Users Don’t Care

It’s interesting that all these features that non-users say would motivate them to check in are already available in numerous products. Maybe, at the end of the day, checking in is simply too much of a hassle and maybe getting a coupon somewhere just isn’t worth the trouble for most people. Only 1% of mainstream users, by the way, said getting a virtual badge or becoming “mayor” would motivate them. Geek? 21%.

Note: click image for high-resolution version



1:17 pm


Echoecho 2.0 Makes Meeting Up With Your Friends as Easy as Five Clicks

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Echoecho is one of the most useful location-based apps on the market today. When you hear the word “location-based app,” chances are you are thinking about services like Foursquare and Gowalla. While these can be fun, their utility is rather limited (unless you really feel the need to collect virtual badges). Echoecho, on the other hand, was built from the ground up to solve a simple problem: finding out where your friends are.

While most of today’s location-based services were designed around the idea of the check-in, Echoecho takes a very different approach and allows to ask your friends where they are.

imageThe service offers free native apps for the iPhone (iTunes link), as well as Android, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Blackberry devices. The latest update is currently only available for iOS and Android, though. The app falls back to SMS if your friends don’t have the app installed, so you can even use it if your friends haven’t installed it yet.

Echoecho doesn’t force you to join yet another social network. Instead, it simply uses your existing contacts on your phone.

Where are you?

Here is the problem Echoecho solves: Say you want to meet up with a friend in the city, but you don’t know exactly where he is. Today, you would probably send a few SMS messages back and forth to slowly triangulate where you both are and to decide what a convenient place to meet up would be. With Echoecho, you simply send a ping, get an answer, propose a meeting location and head there – all within a minute or two and with just a few clicks.

Where should we meet?

imageThe latest versions of the service’s iPhone and Android apps just arrived in their respective app stores. This new version takes the original concept of finding out where your friends are one step further. The app now also allows you to find, suggest and confirm meeting places with just a few clicks. While ensuring your privacy is at the heart of the service, the new version also allows you enable automatic replies for your best friends, spouses or children, so that the app will automatically tell them where you are.

If you want to discuss the meeting place in more depth, Echoecho currently still falls back to using text messages, but one of the next updates will move these discussions to a text chat in the app itself.

One minor limitation of the app is that it currently only revolves around one-on-one meetings. There is currently no way to easily use the app to poll a group of people about their locations and organize meetings.

Version 2.0 of the app now also sports a slick redesigned interface. In my first review, I praised the app for its simplicity and thankfully this has not changed, even as the team added more features.

To fully understand the power of this concept, you really have to see the app in action. Echoecho co-founder Nick Bicanic demoed the update at the Launch conference last month:



9:30 am



What's the Point of Checking In?

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I used to think that location-based services like Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite and all of their clones represented the next big thing in mobile. The reality, however, is that even though these companies are still growing (or at least say they are), I just can’t figure out why I should continue to check in when I arrive at a restaurant or bar. As of now, I am getting absolutely zero value out of checking in.

Maybe it doesn’t help that not a single one of my friends outside of the tech blogosphere bubble uses any of these services (they don’t use Twitter either, by the way). But even then, what value would I get out of seeing that they are at a certain restaurant or bar nearby right now? It’s not like I’ll go there and ruin their romantic evening by sitting at their table. 

Lots of Badges but No Real-World Value

And don’t get me started about the “game mechanics” (which – at least for location-based services is really just code for “badges“). If the only value I get out of checking in is a virtual badge, then taking the phone out of my pocket to check in is clearly not worth the calories I burn in the process. Also, at least here in Portland, the promise of coupons for mayors hasn’t materialized yet (or at least not at the places I frequent). Even if it did – I’m not a regular anywhere, so becoming the mayor of anywhere but my house is out of the question anyway.

For the time being, I’m not getting enough value out of using Foursquare, Gowalla and the rest of them to make checking in worthwhile. Maybe that will change at some point, but for now, I’m checking out.

What’s Your Experience?

What about you? Are you still checking in or has ‘check-in fatigue’ set in for you as well? If you are still checking in, what’s the value you are getting out of it?


12:52 pm