The Foursquare squeeze: will it survive to check in on 2011?

Fun comic about checkins on various location-based services

Foursquare logo

Foursquare (info about it on Crunchbase) deserves a lot of credit. It introduced the “check in” gesture to the industry. It changed location-based services and showed us a new game, one that’s very popular (it has about 300,000 users, and among my friends in the tech industry, is the most popular among industry insiders). It also brought us a new kind of serendipitous meeting and a new kind of serendipitous set of experiences.

The problem is that first mover rarely wins. In fact, Foursquare’s team intimately knows this. Why? Because they developed Dodgeball which was the hot thing among the San Francisco cool tech kid crowd back in 2006. You know that they lost out to Twitter (the common belief is that they lost because Google, who purchased Dodgeball, squandered their lead and didn’t improve the service, but I think there was something else at work too: later movers get the advantage of learning from the first mover).

Booyah logo

We’re already seeing this happen. Booyah’s MyTown (info about Booyah on CrunchBase) is a location-based game that copied Foursquare’s “check in” metaphor, but already has more users, 600,000, and a user base that’s using their service for more minutes each (MyTown’s CEO told me in an interview that the average time spent on its service is 50 minutes per day, which is incredible). The interview with Booyah’s CEO, Keith Lee, is embedded above or you can watch it on YouTube here.

Not to mention that the much bigger and more recognizeable Yelp has added the check-in metaphor too, which shows that Foursquare’s competition is willing to copy its best features pretty quickly.

Today we learned that Facebook may be planning to also adding “check-in” location services.

I’ve been hearing from Google that they are preparing a series of social software moves. Just this week Google turned on Social Circles, which show you your social graph and all the services that your friends have added to their Google Profile. You can see my Google Profile here, and you’ll see I’ve added a TON of social services to my profile along the right side, these all show up in Google’s Social Circles.

Gowalla logo

Anyway, the point is that Foursquare is being squeezed, both from innovative startups like Booyah and Gowalla (Gowalla has the nicest UI, and 100,000 users, you can see more info about Gowalla on Crunchbase) and from bigger players like Yelp, and soon to be Facebook and Google.

Let’s analyze the squeeze:

1. Serendipitous discovery of new things around you. When I use Foursquare to check in, there’s a tab called “tips” which show you things other members have told you to try near you (this is my favorite feature in Foursquare, when I checked into Foursquare in Paris, for instance, someone told me that one of the best French bakeries was within walking distance of where I was staying). Right now Foursquare is the only one to do this, but Facebook has far far far more people, so if they turned on such a feature they would INSTANTLY have more “tips.” Yelp also has far far more people, but hasn’t quite figured out how to bring us great serendipitous discovery. Yelp is better if you know what you want to do near you, but often I get someplace and I am looking to have a new experience and Yelp just doesn’t do well there.

2. Serendipitous meetings with people. Often I’ll check in on Foursquare, see someone I want to meet is nearby, and I’ll text them or tweet them and say “I’m in your neighborhood, want to get together?” I also have had TONS of meetings where other people do that to me. Foursquare has become my favorite rolodex. If you add me to your Foursquare you’ll be able to call me, text me, email me, Facebook me, or tweet me, all from the Foursquare UI. Right now Foursquare is way ahead here for me, because it has the tech insiders using it, but look for Yelp, Facebook, and Google to quickly take away that early advantage. I don’t have a single person on Foursquare that I care about, for instance, that isn’t also on Facebook.

3. Location-based gameplay. It’s fun to check in at the local coffee place, learn that I’ve taken the mayorship away from my friend Francine Hardaway, and get some points or badges for doing that. Why is this important? Because it’s simply freaky to share your location with the public. I don’t like Google’s Latitude for this reason. If I run Latitude all the time you’ll see EVERYWHERE I go. GPS is so good lately you will be able to see when I go into specific stores, or even bathrooms in malls. Ewww. Even worse, though, is that Latitude kills my battery on my iPhone or Android-based devices, so I usually don’t run it (not to mention that on iPhone you can’t run it and do other things at same time). Foursquare said “hell with” that kind of “follow me around” application. They, instead, came up with the “Check in” metaphor which, in my usage, is a lot more controllable, a lot less freaky, and lets you still have the serendipitous meetings that can happen when people know where you are. The thing is, Booyah was started by people who grew up in the game industry (in the video you’ll see all the games their founders have helped other companies build) and Booyah already has more users because, well, it’s a more completely thought out game.

4. Cross-platform availability. Foursquare is ahead here, with clients on desktop, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Symbian. But, does that really matter that much? Especially if Facebook or Google get into this location-based service game?

These are the three areas that I am watching with these location-based services. So far I see that Foursquare is my favorite today, but is getting squeezed and that squeeze is going to get a LOT tighter this year. Will be interesting to see how Foursquare reacts and what it does to keep me as an engaged superuser.