SiliconFilter

In a World of Check-Ins and Social Discovery Apps, EchoEcho Keeps it Simple (and Useful)

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Just like last year, this year's edition of SXSW is once again heavily focused on location-based application. While the genre is slowly moving away from check-ins and virtual badges and more towards "social discovery," though, it's still rather debatable how useful apps like Highlight or Glancee are outside of the conference and Silicon Valley bubble. One location app that has long been going against these trends is the Google Venture-funded EchoEcho. The app does one thing – and it does it well: letting you find out where your friends are and making it easy to meet up with them without compromising anybody's privacy.

Just in time for SXSW, the company just rolled out the fourth version of its app (iTunes link), which features a redesigned interface, a mobile web app and the ability to share your location live with a friend for a set period of time (up to 2 hours).

Using the app is as simple as it gets. You just pick a contact from your phone's address book and simply use the app to ask them where they are. Once your contact receives your request and accepts it, you can both see where both of you are (by requesting somebody's location, you also always share your own location). From there, you can use the app to chat and/or suggest a meeting place.

Two major new features in this version make all of this easier (besides the new design, which is much more streamlined that before): live updates that allow you to share your location in the background, so you know how far away your friends are from the meeting place and a new web app that allows your friends to share their location with you without having to install the app themselves (instead of a push notification from the app, your friends will simply get an SMS with a link to the web app).

Just like previous version of the app, the EchoEcho team continuous to ensure that it's available on all the major mobile platforms, including iOS, Android (these have been updated to 4.0 already), as well as Blackberry, Windows Phone and Symbian (I'm not sure the Symbian app will get an update, though).



3:52 pm


Google Venture-Funded EchoEcho Wants to Help You Find Your Friends

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When it comes to location-based services, check-in apps like FourSquare and Gowalla are probably the ones that have gotten the most attention in recent months. For the most part, though, the usefulness of these apps is still not quite clear. After all, there has to be more to location than discounts, virtual badges and mayorships. One service that has been trying to bring some much-needed attention to actually helping users solve a real-world problem through your phone’s built-in location features is EchoEcho. The service, available for iOS, Android, Symbian, Blackberry and (soon) Windows Phone, wants to make it easier for you to find and meet up with your friends. EchoEcho does so without forcing you to sign up for yet another social network (it just uses your existing address book) and its inherent usefulness means it doesn’t have to resort to “gamification” to get you to use it.

ios_accept discussI have been following EchoEcho since its earliest releases in 2010 and it’s been quite fun watching the bootstrapped company grow and slowly gain traction. Today, EchoEcho is launching the latest version of its apps and announcing a $750k seed financing round from Google Ventures and the UK-based venture firm PROfounders Capital.

As the company’s co-founder and CEO Nick Bicanic told me earlier this week, the team focused on making the sign-up process as easy as possible. Most mobile apps expect you to confirm your phone number by typing it into the phone and then copying a security code from an SMS you receive from the service to verify your identity. EchoEcho takes the opposite route and simply sends an SMS from your phone to its servers, thereby reducing the chance of data entry errors and making the sign-up process as easy as pressing “send.”

Features

ios_inboxThis latest version of EchoEcho, which is really the company’s first major public release, now also includes a built-in chat feature and an even easier to use user interface. One nifty new addition to the app is a mobile web-based client that allows users who don’t have the app installed yet to exchange their position with existing users who ping them. The app now also features a places database that covers almost every country in the world. To do so, the company is working with multiple vendors (including SimpleGeo, Foursquare and Google) and then dedupes the data on the fly.

Keeping it Simple

One thing that always attracted me to EchoEcho was the fact that it was easy to use and focused on doing one thing right: figuring out where your friends are and making it easy to meet up with them. Instead of randomly checking in and hoping that one of your friends will see it, the service simply lets you ping your friend, share your location (and get that of your friends’ as well) and decide on a place to meet – all with just a few clicks.

The service also puts a premium on privacy. You can’t see somebody else’s location, for example, without sharing your own as well.

Coming Soon: Groups

With all this focus on simplicity, though, there are still a few features I would like to see in the app. What’s missing right now, for example, is the ability to meet up with a group of people. Bicanic, however, told me that this feature is coming. The team also plans to add some real-time tracking functionality to the app, though what this will look like still remains to be seen.



11:30 am


Trover: The Best Location-Based Discovery App You’re Not Using (Yet)

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We all got our fair share of laughs out of the failed launch of the over-hyped photo-sharing/social networking service Color. While the idea behind the service was smart, the execution was abysmally bad. Trover, which quietly launched earlier this month, takes some of Color’s most basic ideas and puts them into an easy to use free iOS app (iTunes link). The app is based around the idea that you want to share photos of cool places around you with the rest of the world. There is also a location-based social networking aspect to the app, but you could easily ignore this aspect of the service without losing it’s basic functionality.

Location-based social networking based on photo sharing sounds like a complete buzzword overload, but oddly enough, it actually works out very well in Trover. In some ways, it’s the kind of app you would expect Flickr to make if Flickr still had an ounce of innovation left in it.

trover_screenshots

How it Works

The idea behind Trover is very simple: it allows you to publicly share geotagged images with anybody else on the service. That is, admittedly, nothing too original, but it’s very well implemented. The main view of the app shows you all of the images around you, organized by distance. By default, you will see all the images around you, but you can also filter this down to seeing just the images of the people in your social network on Trover (you sign in with your Facebook account, but the app won’t automatically add your Facebook friends to your network).

Share Your Discoveries – Whatever They May Be

Because of the app’s open approach, you can virtually share anything you want. The people around me have shared anything from photos of restaurant menus and food to pictures of local sights, interesting stores and weird stuff they found while walking down the street (no dearth of that here in Portland). Of course, this also means that some people just take pictures of the food they made at home, but so far, I’ve seen surprisingly little of this.

Trover’s Currency: A Simple ‘Thank You’

Unlike other apps like Foursquare and Gowalla, where the focus is more on amassing virtual badges and collecting digital flotsam, the currency on Trover is a simple ‘thank you.’ To thank others, you don’t have to be part of their social network. This makes it easy to thank other and it’s surprisingly rewarding to be thanked by others.

For the most part, the service has been flying under the radar. Hopefully this will change soon. You can download the app here.



10:29 am


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 Color?

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The minds behind Lala, the ingenious online music service that Apple bought and immediately shut down, just launched their newest project  tonight: Color.

Color is a photo-sharing app for iOS (iTunes link) and Android with $41 million in backing from major venture capital firms. Forbes calls it “a new photo app that could change the way you interact with people,” but leaving aside the question why an app like this needs $41 million, my main problem with the service is that I can’t quite figure out why I would want to use it.

What Color Does

color_screensHere is what Colors does: Unlike apps like Instagram, picplz or Path, every picture you take is public and there is no option to make it private. More importantly, the app groups together both the photos that were taken at the same location and the people that took them. To do this, the service uses some admittedly smart algorithms that look at where your phone was pointing, the ambient noise around you and other factors to determine that these pictures were indeed taken in the same place. The service then organizes you into an “elastic” social network with all the people around you who took picture at the same place. It basically creates the social network for you as you use the app (and dissolves your “friendships” automatically if you don’t take pictures close to each other for a while).

Why Would You Want to Use It?

Overall, this sounds like a smart idea, but I have a hard time imagining why I would want to use this app. If I’m already in a certain place – say a tourist sight – I don’t need to see the pictures that others took there. I’m already there to see things myself after all.

Maybe this will be useful in a restaurant, where you can then see a dish before you order it, but that assumes that there are actually enough people out there who would want to use the app. Even today, if you are outside of the tech bubble, you can still find plenty of places where nobody has ever checked in on Foursquare.

take-photos-togetherSupposedly, grouping these pictures will help you meet new people and make new friends. I just have a hard time imagining this in the real world where you probably don’t want to talk to a stranger just because he/she frequented the same restaurant one night or went to the same concert.

As Tom Foremski notes in his piece about the app, “I say hello to my neighbors but that’s about the most interaction I want with them. […] If I wanted to get to know my neighbors better I would try to make friends with them, but I don’t and they don’t.” I think that’s the social problem Color faces and one that I don’t think it is one that can be easily overcome.

Sadly, the app also itself does little to explain what it actually does, which will likely turn first-time users away rather quickly. There are no help menus and the only indication of what the app does is the opening screen which tells you to “take photos together.” The app’s homepage on the Web also does little to explain its functionality (“Simultaneously use multiple iPhones and Androids to capture photos, videos, and conversations into a group album. There’s no attaching, uploading, or friending to do. “).

Maybe I’m missing something important here – or the huge hype around the app is just making me grumpy – but while I admire the idea behind Color, I just don’t see the point of it.



9:12 pm


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