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.

A 16-year-old’s view of Apple’s iPad: iFail

Tonight when I picked up my son in Petaluma we started talking about the Apple iPad and he told me he thought it was a “fail.” This reaction was interesting coming from Patrick (he was first in line in Palo Alto for the iPhone and has been an Apple fan for as long as I remember.)

Anyway, I asked him if I could record our conversation, he said yes, and this is the result. It’s in two parts, because when we uploaded the first part we got a lot of reaction on Twitter so followed it up with a second part. Here’s the two audio recordings, sorry for the poor quality, we recorded that while driving.

Part I.
Part II.

His major points are:

1. That it isn’t compelling enough for a high school student who already has a Macintosh notebook and an iPhone.
2. That it is missing features that a high school student would like, like handwriting recognition to take notes, a camera to take pictures of the board in class (and girls), and the ability to print out documents for class.
3. That he hasn’t seen his textbooks on it yet, so the usecase of replacing heavy textbooks hasn’t shown up yet.
4. The gaming features, he says, aren’t compelling enough for him to give up either the Xbox or the iPhone. The iPhone wins, he says, because it fits in his pocket. The Xbox wins because of Xbox live so he can play against his friends (not to mention engaging HD quality and wide variety of titles).
5. He doesn’t like the file limitations. His friends send him videos that he can’t play in iTunes and the iPad doesn’t support Flash.
6. It isn’t game changing like the iPhone was.

Anyway, revealing conversation with a teenager who got extremely excited about the iPhone (and saved up to buy his own) the day he saw that.

What do you think?

iPad reveals Microsoft Tablet PCs as flawed. What about Google?

First a disclaimer: Apple’s new iPad didn’t meet expectations, either mine, or the folks who I’ve been talking with on Twitter.

If my friends who work with or for Apple and in the press hadn’t built it up as mind blowing it wouldn’t have been disappointing, but this was a case where expectations got too big and what showed up didn’t meet them. Come on, no radically new way to interact? No Flash? No full OS? No Camera? No Verizon?

I was expecting a 10.0 and an 8.7 showed up.

But if you compare it to what I would have given Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer at CES (I would have scored that a 4.9, mostly because they showed clips of a really cool new Halo coming later this year) then it blows away the competition (which I expected when I wrote about Steve Ballmer’s Tablet bumbles last night).

Watch Financial Times’ first hands on video and you get a sense of why it is so much better than Microsoft’s tablets, though. Apple delivered a consistent and deep touch experience.

But, now, where does today’s announcements leave Google and Microsoft?

I had Google’s Don Dodge (developer advocate) over to watch the Apple announcements today, and I saw several places where Apple was trying to limit Google’s ability to grow. Maps, calendar, Keynote (presentation software) and email on the iPad are all very pretty (we’ll see how good they are when we actually are able to use a device for more than 10 minutes) and compete very effectively against Google’s current offerings.

And against Microsoft I now see that Apple has just eviscerated Microsoft’s mobile strategy with a family of products that will be hard for Microsoft to compete against. But the damage to Microsoft goes further. I see Apple now going after the Xbox and putting a wall around Microsoft’s home entertainment dreams so it won’t be able to grow much further.

My sons, already, are using iPhones to play games and watch videos more and more and the iPad will continue that trend. It’s clear to me, though, that Xbox has largely tapped out the home console market and will see slowing growth over next year or two and I know Microsoft has built a team around Zune to go after mobile entertainment (IE, a portable Xbox).

If Microsoft doesn’t get that shipped soon Apple will use the iPad to shore up its leverage with developers like Tapulous, who are building games for iPhone, and will ensure a whole range of games will only show up on Apple’s mobile devices and not on anything Microsoft will do. Microsoft must be very concerned by that.

Back to Google. I think the Chrome OS will prove very interesting as Google comes back against Apple with a device that costs less (Chrome OS is cheaper on hardware than Apple’s OS is, and also is cheaper in licensing fees, so I expect to see Chrome OS-based devices for around $200, instead of the $500 that Apple’s iPad starts at.

That’s where I expect to see major clashes over the next year as Google and Apple try to lock up movie, books, magazines, newspapers, and other media to make their systems better than the others. My predictions of how Google will respond? Look at Chrome OS and watch for new devices that compete with Apple head on. Look at Google Voice to be built onto. Look for Google Maps to even further extend their lead in the industry. Look for Google to come out with a microblogging competitor to Twitter and Facebook that will wrap up everyone’s experiences. Finally, look for Google and Apple to get into bidding wars over companies like Siri (wait until you see what they’ve done next week).

So, we’ve seen how Steve Jobs is setting the trends for the industry. I can’t wait to see how Google puts together its machine to compete.

One hint? There was no talk of wireless synching between iPhone and iPad. Why not? Compare to when I got my Google Nexus One phone. I entered in my email address and all my apps magically appeared. THAT gives you a hint of how Google is going to hit at Apple.

Oh, and one other weakness Apple has? Apple is clueless about social software. Google isn’t all that great either, but it is a world ahead of Apple. So, look at Google to make some major social networking moves this year to make its ecosystem a lot more interesting to the Facebook generation.

Onward, now that all the hype is done and you’ve seen it, any other ideas? I’m off to meet with iPhone game developers to get their reactions, talk to you later after I get home.

To answer Michael Gartenberg’s question, I see Microsoft as a solid loser in today’s announcements and a decent pitch has just been thrown over the plate in Google’s direction, so we’ll see if they can hit it out of the park or will Google whiff it?