Foursquare, Geolocation and Product / Technology Fit
‘Location based services’, which map geographical position of a mobile device, use state of the art technology. But the technology behind the coordinates is really just an enabler for adoption – location based services are more of a product challenge. When they become easy and practical enough that they are really useful and sticky, they will see a tipping point in adoption.
Product and technology synergy is imperative in any web service, but I’d argue it’s more important in geolocation due to the complex interplay between location hardware, software, and mobile platforms. Mass market adoption is likely to come from players who understand this interplay best.
Consider Gowalla as an example. Early on, their product team decided that ‘check-ins’ would only be permitted if the user’s presence could be verified via GPS. Unfortunately poor signal often prevented this.
So let’s get this straight: GPS is known not to work indoors. And check-ins usually happen indoors. Uhm, am I missing something? This is a typical gap that occurs between product people and designers. Gowalla’s CEO admitted in a recent talk that this decision hurt adoption, and I’m sure it’s part of why foursquare passed them by.
Gowalla’s problem was hardware-related – GPS satellites are nearly undetectable indoors and TTFF (time to first fix) is long. Software workarounds using cell towers and WiFi clearly should have been implemented better prior to releasing the service.
Platform issues also impact location services’e.g. the absence of iPhone multitasking, which requires users to fire up an app to engage. Imagine instead if foursquare could push deals based on your constantly changing location. This is what iPhone OS 4.0’s background location APIs will eventually do.
But – most people don’t realize that background iPhone apps will NOT use GPS, since it’s a massive power sink (dedicated car nav apps will, but they are plugged in). Instead, background apps will receive coordinate data when subscribers move between cell towers. This confines background location updates to a 500 – 1000 meter radius. Great…how valuable is a coupon for a coffee shop once you’ve walked 10 blocks away?
Technologies other than GPS assist (Skyhook maps WiFi sensitivity) but accuracy and backgrounding challenges exist there too. The best solution will be low power standby-aware GPS which will cut battery drain by 10-100x and enable continual location awareness – these chipsets will emerge later this year, and within a few years will be ubiquitous.
All this platform progress will enable unbelievable location-based monetization. Not only promotions and pre-check-in recommendations, but also proximity based advertising and digital signage, which will allow merchants to truly interact with customers. This is the level of engagement that will show Dave McClure the money in the geo/local space.
One thing is sure: only companies who master the interplay between product, technology and usability will hit the hockey-stick adoption curve in location based services.
Foursquare has already shown a solid ability to make system-level and product design choices, and my bet is they will out-innovate bigger players who enter the market. Geolocation is a great place for a nimble, focused startup to create an empire, even as check-ins become a commodity, and regardless of the fact that Google, Facebook et. al are now joining the party.