Today location check-in app Foursquare unveiled a new design for its iOS and Android mobile apps. It now focuses on recommending places for you to go, based on your current location. It’s also more social. This is a sensible pivot, but Foursquare is not yet at the place it needs to be.
My usage of Foursquare dropped off markedly over the past year. It was one of those apps that was addictive for a while, being the mayor of my local cafe and so forth, but then it just became a drag. That’s because there weren’t enough real world rewards for checking in – too few retailers offered incentives such as discounts. Today’s redesign aims to entice people like me back to the service. Not to mention hook the many millions of mainstream users who haven’t yet tried it.
With this release, Foursquare becomes a direct competitor to the current recommendations leader, Yelp (whose tagline reads: “Real people. Real reviews”). This means that Foursquare will need to beef up its database of real world reviews, even though it will rely mostly on the implicit recommendations of check-ins. Foursquare is also aiming to beat Yelp on the social part, hence social functionality has been enhanced in the new version of Foursquare.
This is quite a change in the core use case for Foursquare. Previously, you opened up Foursquare to “check in” to a place. When I was a more regular user, I tended to use it in one of two ways: 1) to check into exotic locations when I was traveling, or 2) to keep my mayorship at my favorite local cafe. That check-in use case is still a big part of Foursquare, but it’s been augmented with the “Explore” functionality. This enables you to search for something, like “sushi” or “cafe”, and Foursquare will recommend places nearby.
The goal then of Foursquare has moved from checking in (where, as mentioned, the real world benefits turned out to be small), to discovery (where the benefits are potentially bigger, in that you could find great new places to visit).
The redesigned app feels more social. Comments are more to the fore now and you can see more check-ins when you visit a person’s profile. You’re also encouraged to “share your adventures”, with the help of larger images and maps that display faces. The Facebook integration has been tightened: when you first open the new app, you’re prompted to add Foursquare to your Facebook Timeline. Also your check-in history is more accessible now – you can now search through your check-in history, similar to how Timeline works in Facebook.
Overall, there are a lot of neat feature upgrades in the new Foursquare. There’s less focus on the gimmicks (mayors, badges) and more focus on places, people and colorful images.
Another similarity to Facebook is Foursquare’s renewed focus on brands. For example, the History Channel is on Foursquare and has so far recommended nearly 1,500 places with interesting histories.
Things To Improve On
It’s not all beer and skittles. The user interface feels a bit crowded now and I got confused several times when tapping around the Explore section. So the design needs some work – especially to make it more intuitive to new users. But these things will get smoothed out over time.
Also if Foursquare wants to compete with Yelp, it needs to find a way to encourage more of its users to leave “tips” (aka reviews). Currently when you check in, you’re asked “What are you up to?”. That’s a Twitter-like prompt, but really Foursquare needs to be asking something like: “What do you think of this place?”. This would encourage more people to leave useful tips/reviews.
Will The Pivot Work?
Overall, this feels like a great move by Foursquare. The commercial aspects of check-ins didn’t work out, but along the way Foursquare managed to amass a valuable store of data about places and where people go. Also, where they spend their money. So switching to recommendations, a la Yelp, is a smart move. That said, I think Foursquare needs more than just implicit check-in recommendations. It needs to beef up its explicit recommendation database (= tips).
Will Foursquare be able to entice a mainstream market to “explore” using its app? Let us know in the comments.
Jon Mitchell tells you what the point of Foursquare is. Richard MacManus shows you 10 gorgeous apps to drool over. Learn more about these stories and many more in the ReadWriteWeb Weekly Wrap-Up. After the jump you’ll find more of this week’s top news stories on some of the key topics that are shaping the Web – Location, App Stores and Real-Time Web – plus highlights from some of our six channels. Read on for more.
If you’ve tried to figure out why people use Foursquare, Jon Mitchell explains that beyond the badges, check-ins and branded ad campaigns, Foursquare offers significant user value in its recommendations.
Forget the annoying badges and mayorships, too. There’s one useful thing at which Foursquare is very, very good: recommendations.
Some apps are very clearly not blessed with beauty. These apps are different. They stand out from the pack because thoughtful design and elegant UI is more than skin deep. There were a few more great finds in the comments:
“Google+, Chrome Beta, Pocket, YouTube are some gorgeous apps on Android.” - Redwan Huq
More Top Stories
Do you use Google+ more than Facebook? Are you an avid Twitter user, but not so active on Google+? Do you autoshare online media, such as songs or news articles, on Facebook? These are just some of the questions being asked in the ongoing evolution of the “Interest Graph,” succinctly defined by software engineer Adam Rifkin as “WHAT people care about.” He was contrasting it to the term popularized by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “Social Graph,” which is WHO people care about. More
Socialcam is being called the “Instagram for Video” app. With this phrase comes the idea that, like seemingly every startup nowadays, the goal is to build an awesome and thriving community, pump up the product to the level of ultimate coolness and then cash in by selling to a bigger social company that may or may not have a working business model. That’s one way to look at it. More
Following all the great apps released for iOS and Android in March, it seemed like we were in for an April letdown. That is not the case. Some huge names published great apps this month, including Google releasing its Drive app for Android and Instagram making its debut outside of the iPhone. Taken by themselves, that would make for a notable month of apps. But, we have more. A lot more. What were the top apps this month? Check out the second edition of our ReadWrite Recommends Apps of the Month for iOS and Android. More
A noticeable trend this year is beautiful apps or websites. It’s all part of a larger trend that we’re calling The Visual Web, meaning that images and video are becoming an increasingly important part of what we consume online. Pinterest is the best example of that larger trend. But by “beautiful apps or websites,” I’m specifically referring to extremely well-designed apps or websites. Ones that make you drool. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I think we all agree that Johnny Depp and Reese Witherspoon are particularly fine examples of beauty in human form. So what’s the app equivalent of Johnny Depp? Or the website version of Reese Witherspoon? More
Nintendo is in trouble. The Japanese gaming giant, which has long felt building pressure from mobile computing platforms, is now officially losing money. Lots of it. Last week, the company reported an operating loss of $458 million, the first such deficit in its long history. While larger economic trends are partially to blame, it certainly doesn’t help that Nintendo is refusing to consider the one thing that could possibly save it. More
The latest trend in smartphone apps is social video. That’s because ever since Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 Billion, attention has focused on video sharing apps and whether one of them will win the next Zuckerberg lottery. The two leading contenders are Socialcam and Viddy. ReadWriteWeb’s Alicia Eler profiled those two apps, along with a third called Klip, in a post Wednesday. More
We learned that Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s resume boasts a computer science degree he never got. This news is likely to have a ripple effect as we discover who else in the Valley has tried to pull a stunt like this. Here’s what happened to 10 other executives who fibbed on their resumes. More
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What Is the Point of… series, we’ll explain it to you.Whenever a trendy app comes along, there are people who ask, “What is the point of this?” If millions of people are using something, there has to be a reason. In our
This week, we’re asking, What is the point of Foursquare?
Yes, we know. The check-in is dead. If the polls are accurate, most people don’t even know location apps exist. So we don’t have to care about Foursquare, right? Well, no. As of last month, the service had 20 million users, or about half an Instagram. It’s not for everybody, but it has its devoted fans.
Why, though? Isn’t Foursquare just for spamming Twitter and Facebook with what Geoloqi’s Amber Case calls “geoloquacious” noise about your trip to the grocery store? It can be, and for too many users, it is.
But turn all that off. Forget the annoying badges and mayorships, too. There’s one useful thing at which Foursquare is very, very good: recommendations.
Use Foursquare Quietly
Seriously, you can ignore all the gamification in Foursquare. No more “You unlocked the #SuperSpamAttack badge!” No more “You ousted your mom as mayor of your basement apartment!” Do it. That stuff is pointless.
You can (and should) also turn off the auto-broadcasting to Twitter and Facebook. Sure, you can share a meaningful check-in every once in a while, but no one cares that you refer to your apartment as ThaChillZone. In fact, close off Foursquare to everyone except people you actually know.
More importantly, only be Foursquare friends with people whose tastes you trust. That’s when Foursquare starts to get interesting.
Use It to Explore
There are lots of apps out there to recommend local stores and restaurants, because that’s where all the mobile money is. Google, Facebook, Yelp and countless smaller companies all try to do that. But Foursquare, probably due to all the gamification we all turned off a few paragraphs ago, has great data for recommendations because its users check in intentionally and leave helpful tips. It also has the best UI around for place recommendations.
In addition to getting recommendations from your friends, which is the basic use case for Foursquare, there are two killer features: Explore and Radar. Explore lets you search for places to eat, shop or stay nearby, and it can personalize the results to you. So checking in to places you like, even if you aren’t broadcasting it, helps you find more places.
You can even use Foursquare Explore on the Web, and it looks awesome on an iPad. (Hopefully, they’ll make the map tiles retina-ready soon, and then it will be heavenly.) So discovery on Foursquare isn’t just a mobile activity anymore.
But Radar uses the smartphone’s capabilities to their fullest extent. If you turn it on, Foursquare will send you push notifications in your pocket while you’re walking around, letting you know about nearby places. So you don’t even have to have your phone out to find a restaurant you might like. Checking in on Foursquare can get you discounts on things, too.
Even if geoloquacious Foursquare use drives you crazy, you might find it worth your while to use it for quietly exploring and recommending things to close friends.
I am calling shenanigans on this year’s SXSW fad. The microclimate that is SXSW and San Francisco often creates hype for services that, ultimately, no one is going to really care about. Foursquare and Twitter did well at SXSW in their growth phases but those companies may prove to be the exception instead of the rule. The crop this year includes several “ambient social location’ apps that are likely destined for obscurity when the time comes that normal users are supposed to adopt.
If you have been following the hype circles, we are talking about apps like Highlight, Glancee, Banjo and Sonar. These apps show users people that are around them using the apps and what their interests are. They use location running in the background as well as tying to social profiles like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. From a mass consumer prospective, location sharing has been the most fickle area of user adoption. Many people do not trust location apps. Below we examine the top contenders to win the hype circle and why the group is destined to fail.
Highlight and Glancee are the two apps most likely to make a splash at SXSW. As a microclimate, apps like these are perfect for an event like SXSW that has essentially turned into Spring Break for the startup crowd. Attendees are socially forward, iPhone carrying tech enthusiasts ready to jump on the bandwagon of the supposed next greatest thing. Put all of them in close proximity with each other and have their phones track each other and, hey, these apps seems pretty cool.
Highlight apparently has been getting the most hype in the Silicon Valley crowd. Good for it but hardly anyone outside of San Francisco has heard of the app. Highlight tracks your location in the background and sends you a push notification if someone using the app comes within 50 yards of you. You then can theoretically say hello, talk about your shared interests and a recording of that meeting will be saved in your Highlight account.
Glancee works in much the same way. It tracks your location in the background and links to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. It will show people who are using the app in the same area along with their social graph interests as well as automatically uploading your Facebook profile pictures.
Banjo also uses ambient location but it relies more on aggregating location data from Foursquare, Gowalla Facebook and Twitter to provide a map of people near you. In terms of the social, Banjo has the more integration than Glancee and Highlight that are focused more on the ambient location aspect of apps like these.
Sonar uses Foursquare to show you people nearby. I am not sure why I would not just use Foursquare to do that. It also has Twitter and Facebook integration. Sonar also uses some type of ranking system to give weight to the people around you and whom you might find the most interesting. It offers additional contextual data through LinkedIn integration.
EchoEcho wanted my phone number before I even signed into the service so I stopped the sign-in process before I even really started it. I do not give my phone number to social apps. That includes Facebook and Google if I can help it (Twitter is an exception). The neat thing about EchoEcho is that it can map your friends indoors through Wi-Fi and GPS outside.
Other apps in this category include Glassmap, Kismet, Intro, ntro, Mingle and CardFlick.
Outside of Echo Radius
One of my strengths in reporting on consumer technology is that I place myself outside of the influence of the echo bubble. That does not mean I am not in the echo bubble. Any reporter covering any topic gets caught up in the intricacies of the ecosystem in which they find themselves. Yet, my history gives me a critical eye and the fact that I grew up in New England makes me suspicious of popular tech hotbeds (including my own city of Boston).
There is little doubt that both Highlight and Glancee are going to be popular for people at SXSW and in San Francisco. Maybe even an enclave in Boston, New York and D.C. will pony up to these apps. The mass of consumers are not going to adopt these apps. The closest comparison we have to these ambient location apps is Foursquare that has done well but not terrific in the consumer market. Right now the service has more than 15 million users and doubled its rolls in 2011. People outside of tech circles are aware of Foursquare but are suspicious of it and wonder exactly what kind of benefits it provides. (The answer to that is its infrastructure and APIs that are more important to developers than consumers.) If Foursquare was the game changer that everybody wants it to be, growth would be higher than it is. Look at Twitter. It provides a truly useful service to the masses and adds more users than Foursquare’s entire base every month or so.
When I opened Highlight today I went through the signup process and wanted to start exploring. Glancee, Banjo and Sonar makes this easy. What happens when you sign into Highlight?
Apparently I not only live outside the echo chamber but outside the radius of anybody that might be using the app. This is the message that I got when I signed up for the app.
Really Highlight? There is nothing to immediately engage a user, especially one that is likely very skeptical of your service in the first place? The company is betting heavily on the “ambient” portion of its functionality by promising that, hey, one day it may actually be useful when you happen to be around somebody that uses the app. Highlight is counting on the “aha!” moment for users once they get that first push notification that somebody is near them and then fall in love with the serendipity of random real world social discovery.
My immediate reaction? If it was not my job to judge apps like this, I would have immediately deleted it. Not go and start a roving dance troupe or run a 1K with my friends. I neither dance nor run, even if it is just .6 miles. Most users outside of the hype machine enclaves are going to have the same experience as me and Highlight will never actually send them a push update because they are never going to run into another person using the app.
This is the conundrum that faces any social startup: it is hard to be social when nobody else is using the app.
The Color Comparison
You know what company has tried to do something like this before? Yeah, everybody’s favorite Silicon Valley Albatross, Color. At this time last year everybody was excited about what Color could bring to the table with a photography app that had ambient location in the background. We were not calling it ambient location at the time but that is basically what it was. The idea of color was to create an implicit social graph by recognizing other that were using the app and taking pictures around you. The initial problem with Color, outside of bad UI, was that no one was using it. How can you turn real world experience into implicit social connections if nobody is around?
Essentially that is what Highlight, Glancee and Banjo are trying to do. Instead of pictures, each is trying to tie implicit connections to the explicit social graph by tying ambient background location through existing social profiles like Twitter and Facebook. Will it work? It is an interesting idea but one that many people are not going to understand or care about.
So, have your fun with these apps down in Austin. The microclimate is perfect for temporary growth but do not expect ambient social location to be the next great consumer hit.
Foursquare just made what it called “a little announcement”, but it’s really not little at all. It’s switching away from the Google Maps API to OpenStreetMap. For the map images, it hired MapBox, a start-up that makes pretty maps out of OpenStreetMap data. Starting with foursquare.com, foursquare’s maps now use MapBox Streets.
Foursquare cites Google’s decision to start charging for access to the Google Maps API in October as the reason it started looking for alternatives. But it sounds like it just made more sense to the team philosophically, too. “We love the idea of open data,” the announcement says, “and were happy to try it out.”
Lots of businesses built on top of Google Maps have been switching providers lately. Foursquare’s blog post points to StreetEasy, Nestoria and Fubra, all of whom went with open data. We also covered the decision by AllTrails, a network for outdoors enthusiasts, to start backing away from Google before its launch.
Google’s decision to charge for API access could not have been made lightly, especially considering the importance of Foursquare. But it may have been inevitable. “Overall it’s healthy for the ecosystem,” John Musser of Programmable Web told us when Google announced the change. “Services need to be sustainable with business models that work for both sides.”
It’s also hard to ignore Google’s efforts to compete with foursquare directly. Its mobile Hotpot app, Google Places recommendations and Google Latitude check-ins all seem like ways to crowd out Foursquare, although why there are so many overlapping Google apps for this is hard to understand. There are also Google+ check-ins, which will be the social glue that ties them all together.
Foursquare’s iPhone and Android apps won’t be affected, because they use the mapping components integrated with those operating systems, both of which use Google Maps. But Foursquare’s data are now independent of Google, and that’s no “little announcement.”
Foursquare, about to celebrate its third birthday, is big but not huge. It has signed up 15 million users, hired over 100 employees, and now boasts several million check-ins per day. That is impressive work for three years, but it must keep growing.
To do so, Foursquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley says the company is in the process of redesigning its mobile app for a broader audience, disassembling it and trying to put its features back together in a way that’s more useful and interesting. It has also launched new features on its Web site, such as the neat and powerful “Explore” tool, which can help you find cool places to visit in your neighborhood or in an entirely new city.
As Twitter realized a few years ago, Crowley says Foursquare is seeing a big chunk of its growth from people who want to use parts of Foursquare, but not necessarily broadcast their location to the world. That means building a service that’s useful to more casual users, and not just early Foursquare diehards.
I recently sat down with Crowley at the company’s brand new, roomy headquarters in New York City, for an idea of what’s next. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our chat.
ReadWriteWeb: Where is Foursquare right now?
Dennis Crowley: I think we’re starting to get to the point where people are starting to see where the product is going and where the vision is going. The most exciting stuff for me to watch is all these people who have been Foursquare users for a year or so, writing their own blog posts and tweeting their own stuff about “oh, now I get it.”
After we launched Explore on the Web, they’re like, “This isn’t about points and badges anymore. This is about using the data that Foursquare’s getting from check-ins in order to do all this interesting stuff about surfacing things that are nearby, things that I might like, places I should go, experiences that I should have.” That’s been our goal all along.
One of the big tasks that we have this year is getting people to think of the product more as something that’s all about discovery and introducing them to new places, and making their experience in new cities and unfamiliar neighborhoods easier for them. As opposed to just checking in to unlock points and badges. I think we’re still stuck with a little bit of that stereotype, and this year’s about us getting out of that.
Foursquare’s new Web-based “Explore” feature.
How do you get past that stereotype and grow?
The challenge isn’t really that dissimilar than some of the growing pains and hazing that Twitter went through. For a long time, Twitter was “oh, it’s just people tweeting what they had for lunch, or that they’re going to the movies.” That wasn’t interesting for a lot of people.
Then they hit a moment that was a little bit of critical mass and a little bit of clarity, where people started using it to break news and share headlines and spread information. And that’s when it started clicking for a lot of people. For me, I was always interested in it, but when the plane landed in the Hudson and that’s how you were learning stuff faster than CNN was breaking it, or when Michael Jackson died, those were the big moments that I think solidified Twitter’s importance for a lot of people.
For us, we’re starting to get to that point where people see that we’re more than just a standard check-in app. You can go into Foursquare any time of the day and it will recommend interesting things that are nearby. So it’s not analogous – it’s not exactly the same as the Twitter experience. But we have that problem of perception that we’re still working to overcome.
I look at what those guys went through, and if you just keep pushing at the vision long enough, it will eventually turn itself around or make itself clear to people. That’s why, looking at those blog posts, it’s really rewarding for me, because I can see that the change is already happening already.
What will you change?
There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in the app. We’re in the process of going through a redesign in the app, in a sense. We’re basically taking all the stuff we built over the last two years or so, disassembling it… You put all the pieces on the table, and figure out, “Okay, what is the best way to put these pieces back together so that it tells the story of Foursquare in the way that we want it to be told?” And I think if we can do that properly, then that’s our ticket to really being able to effectively communicate how powerful the data is and how powerful a lot of the tools are.
A peek at Foursquare’s brand-new, sunny headquarters in New York
What about making money? Will we start to see more advertising-based content in streams?
It’s a project for the near term. That’s a lot of what the Amex stuff is. (Foursquare has a broad partnership with American Express.) It’s experimenting with merchants to figure out a way that we can put products that are monetizable into the Foursquare product, in a way that you don’t look at it and say, “I can’t believe Foursquare put advertising in the stream.” You say, “this is great, there’s a $10 discount here.”
Since 2009, we’ve been pushing different ways to get merchants involved in the conversation with users. If users are looking for places to go, put merchants in there to help entice them. We did it initially with mayor specials, we’re starting to do it now with the Amex stuff, and we’ll be continuing to push that.
Our belief has always been, in order to connect people to places, and places to people, there’s a way to insert a dialogue with a merchant that in a way doesn’t feel like advertising, because the users are getting some tangible benefit out of it. It can be just special treatment, like you get to cut the line. It could be that you save a couple bucks. It could be that when you bring your friends, you get something special. There’s a whole wide variety of it. It’s just rewarding the user for things that they’d be doing anyway with Foursquare.
This is a bit out-there, but Netflix has built up a huge advantage for its streaming movie service by getting it installed everywhere, from new TVs to videogame systems. Can you use that concept for Foursquare, in a car perhaps?
Yeah, why not? I think anywhere where you see maps. Any map should have Foursquare dots on them. The dots could be representative of a number of things. It could be where your friends are right now. Or once you put your car in park, these are the five things you should be doing in this neighborhood.
And you could see a world where it’s like, here’s five things that I’m looking at, and I instantly send them to my phone, and then as I’m walking around, Radar (a serendipity-manufacturing Foursquare feature) buzzes me to let me know about them. When you think of all the other places that you’d probably encounter maps, being able to put Foursquare dots on them is a really interesting thing for us.