SiliconFilter

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

/

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


The Evolution of Foursquare: An Interview With Dennis Crowley

/

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


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

/

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


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

/

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)

/

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


Why Security Researcher Who Discovered iPhone Location Data Long Ago Almost Went Unnoticed

/

As more information about the “secret” location-data file on Apple’s iPhone 4s and iPad 3Gs becomes available, the story surrounding this discovery is becoming more about the people involved than the location data itself. As it turns out, Alex Levinson, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, had long discovered this file in his research and work with forensic firm Katana Forensics. Katana Forensics produces a tool called Lantern, which can extract this data and map it in Google Earth’s KMZ format. Levinson also presented his findings in an IEEE journal all the way back in 2007. So why did the blogosphere and mainstream press go crazy about this affair yesterday (including me) and why was Levinson, who emailed virtually all major publications about this yesterday afternoon Pacific Time, ignored by all but a few outlets (again: including me)?

Note: a lot of this is inside baseball about how the blog sausage is made. If that’s not of interest to you, here is the tl;dr: Levinson’s email to the press was flawed and his research was only available in academic publications.

Why Was Levinson Mostly Ignored?

Talking to Gigaom’s Bobbie Johnson, Levinson explained his findings in detail, but also made this observation:

He adds that the press missed the story first time around, and now seems more focused on the horror of data storage than the reality (there, for example, is no evidence that the data is sent back to Apple at the moment).

‘I do blame the press somewhat for sensationalizing them without recourse,’ he says. ‘I emailed 20 of the top media outlets who covered this, linking them to my side — none of them replied, except a famous blogger who cursed me.’” (my emphasis)

To his point about missing the story the first time around: it’s a point well taken, but I should also note that his research was published in 2007 in the Hawaii International Conference for System Sciences 44 – not a publication most journalists and bloggers read at bedtime. He also published more about this in a book on iOS forensic analysis, but that, too, isn’t something even those of us who did a bit of research on this topic yesterday could have easily spotted. The sad reality is, neither the press nor blogosphere was going to pick up on this story unless somebody made us aware of it. As far as I know, nobody did.

As to why he was ignored yesterday: Every day, press and bloggers get pitches from “experts” about various topics. The reality is, we ignore 99% of those (and no, it wasn’t me who cursed at him). There were a few problems with Levinson’s pitch that made it even easier to ignore:

a) he didn’t use bcc and cc’ed everybody on the list (a pet peeve of reporters and other cubicle dwellers alike). Given the amount of emails flowing into most bloggers’ and reporters’ inboxes, emails like that immediately go to the bottom of the pile, especially after the second comment about the missing bcc arrives. A rookie PR mistake.

b) none of the pertinent information (links to the old publication etc.) was in the email – just a link to a blog post and to a blog nobody had ever heard of. Also, statements like “You will want to read this” and “it would be in your best interest to review what I have to say” are something most of us read about 50 times a day and just ignore.

The fact that I failed to see the value in Levinson’s pitch is obviously nothing to be proud of, but I thought you deserved a bit more of an explanation for why this story went mostly unnoticed the first time around and why Levinson’s voice was not heard until the news cycle was already over. I’m glad it’s being heard loud and clear now.



8:55 am


Your iPhone Keeps a Secret Log of Your Every Move

/

This is going to be a major PR nightmare for Apple. Security researchers Pete Warden and Alasdair Allen today announced that they have discovered that all iPhones and 3G-enabled iPads keep a log of your every move in an unencrypted file that is hidden inside the iOS filesystem. The files are backed up and restored every time you sync your phone with a desktop computer. According to the researchers, no other phone currently does this and keeping this data on the phone has wide-reaching security and privacy implications. The researchers also believe that this is an intentional move on Apple’s behalf and not just the result of a temporary log file not being deleted properly.

If you have an iPhone and a Mac, you can download Pete Warden’s iPhoneTracker application to see what data your phone has gathered.

What’s the Problem?

There is something rather interesting about seeing this data, but it is also rather creepy at the same time. Currently, the mobile phone carriers do keep a log of your location data. This data, however, is kept (relatively) safe and it takes a court order to get it. Indeed, as the data is backed up on your computer, whoever wants to know where you’ve been since you bought your iPhone 4 or iPad 3G can easily do so with Warden’s tool.

As the data is stored outside of Apple’s sandbox for regular applications that run on your iOS device, regular apps can’t access it, unless you have jailbroken your device.

It’s worth noting that none of your data is being transmitted to other devices or Apple’s servers.

How Good is the Data?

Looking at my own data, I noticed that Apple only seems to record your location when your cell phone connection is working. It did not record any data for trips through mountain passes without cell connections, for example. Sometimes the data is also a bit off, as it seems to be geared more towards the location of cell towers than data gathered from the phone’s built-in GPS.

On the device, the data is second-by-second. The iPhoneTracker tools deliberately obscures the exact location, too, and only shows it on a grid-like view. If you access the raw files, though, you will see that exact location and time stamps. Given that the code for the iPhoneTracker tools is open source, though, it’s only a matter of time before somebody will write an application that gives you easy access to the more granular data.

In the video below, Warden and Allen discuss how they found this data:



7:45 am