The impressive proliferation of Social Location Applications has been hard to ignore with the recent tech media and blogosphere’s enamourment of the space. Facilitated by the ground-braking usability of the iPhone and Android platforms, a number of start-ups have been able to combine geo-location with social and gaming features to launch several new applications which range from clever to useful. I’ve enjoyed tracking the space for some time so the following is a snapshot on a handful of the more interesting applications and a brief future outlook on the space in general.
When thinking of an ideal social location service a few questions are automatic: Does it facilitate my meeting and staying in contact with friends? Is it fun and engaging? Does it help me discover what’s around me in terms of places, events and activities? Is it easy to use and available everywhere I go? Does it have long-term usefulness? Ultimately these questions address the Stickiness and Usability of an application – in this case as follows:
Stickiness = usefulness + entertainment + social interaction
Usability = available content + locations + devices + ease of use
Stickiness (3.5 out of 5) – The Foursquare application allows people to earn points by “checking-into” locations and sharing that information with their friends – cleverly including those on Facebook and Twitter. Title badges (mayor-ships) are earned for being the most frequent visitor to a single location, which encourages competition among users – though initially fun, this model’s appeal is arguably short-term. The information shared among users is a pin-on-a-map visual with a brief “I’ve just checked into” message – useful to nearby friends who may want to meet-up or compete for a mayor-ship, but not ideal for those who are interested in discovering nearby places, events or activities.
Usability (3 out of 5) – As I write, Foursquare has announced a new upgrade that will enable check-ins anywhere in the world as opposed to the current list of a few dozen cities worldwide – which is currently a huge limitation to its growth and appeal. The application is slick and easy to use, is available for both iPhone and Android, with a full functionality mobile browser version for other smart-phones.
Gowalla – Though very similar to Foursquare with its focus on gaming and friend-tracking, Gowalla has managed to nail Foursquare’s shortfalls from day one: Unlimited locations, a slicker application and most importantly – the ability to scrape friends from Facebook and Twitter.
Stickiness (3.5 out of 5) – Gowalla, like Foursquare, relies heavily on a gaming approach to create its appeal. Users stamp their “Passports” when visiting places and compete for a mayorship-like Top 10 ranking at each location. Users can also pick-up or drop-off items (virtual goods) at different locations, with the ability to track who has “owned” an item previously. Gaming aspects aside, Gowalla’s virtual goods model is interesting as one can easily foresee how virtual items could eventually be traded-in for real items. Gowalla is initially fun and engaging but as with Foursquare – its focus on gaming and friend-tracking is less ideal for truly discovering what’s around you.
Usability (3.5 out of 5) – Gowalla can be used anywhere, users can simply enter new locations when these are not automatically detected by the application – which is currently available for the iPhone, with a near-full functionality mobile web browser version for Android and other smart-phones.
Flook – Launched in November 2009, Flook is the newest entry in the social geo-location space. Founded by the team who built Symbian (disclaimer: whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting), they have taken a completely different approach from the gaming and friend-tracking model of other social location apps: a usefully serendipitous discovery of nearby places, events, activities and “things” via picture/information cards.
Stickiness (4 out of 5) – Flook allows users to take a picture of anything, add some text and a “Card” is automatically created with the picture, description, location map and creator info – which can then be shared on Twitter. Users can browse Cards from their friends, from a nearby location or search specific categories. “Flookers” can also collect points, introducing a light competitive gaming aspect and potentially, a future virtual goods business model. In its initial release, Flook has placed a lesser emphasis on the friend management features commonly found on other apps.
Usability (4 out of 5) – Another appealing aspect of Flook is that most content is created by its users and as a consequence – locations are unlimited and discovery is a pleasantly unpredictable experience. By browsing Cards, one is just as likely to find a hidden flower garden, a free power socket, a major landmark, a cozy restaurant or a local farmers market. A current limitation of Flook is its iPhone-only availability – but the application looks great and is intuitive to use.
Loopt – One of the first to enter the social location space with a simplistic check-in and friend tracking approach – which has been replicated by a dozen or so other companies (Google Latitude included). Loopt claims millions of users across hundreds of devices, though suffering the recent media hype around Foursquare and Gowalla’s gaming model.
Stickiness (3 out of 5) – Loopt is currently focused on what can be considered the foundation service or starting point for any social location app: the ability to share your real time location with friends and track who else is nearby. Their first step in expanding beyond that is a recently added restaurant and event discovery feature.
Usability (2 out of 5) – The application is currently available on iPhone, Android, Blackberry and hundreds of other smart-phones…but only in major cities around the United States. Their map visual shows icons of nearby friends, restaurants and events and the app is extremely easy to use.
FUTURE OUTLOOK (Functionality, Monetization, Consolidation and Acquisition)
Functionality – Today’s Social Location apps can be broken down into three functional categories: Gaming-Centric (Foursquare, Gowalla), Discovery-Centric (Flook) and Basic Friend Management (Loopt, Brightkite, Google Latitude, etc). Most have understandably been focused on user-acquisition rather than monetization but surprisingly, only Gowalla has gone directly where users reside today to import people’s existing relationships – Facebook and Twitter. With the availability of Facebook Connect and Twitter APIs I expect most applications to implement a similar feature in the short term (most have already included the ability to share content across Facebook and Twitter). (more…)