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Location, Location, Location

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8 April 2011

Ancient transcontinental seafarers did it with a sextant. The American Indians did it with smoke signals. Pigeons just do it.

In 2007 we did it with Loopt and Brightkite. Today we’re doing it with Latitude, Gowalla, and Foursquare.

The Checkin is King. Or is it?


There is a problem. Take Foursquare for instance. They are the undisputed leader of location, but don’t even come close to the user numbers social giants Facebook and Twitter boast. Both Twitter and Facebook have their hand firmly wedged in the location game, but neither seem to be managing much leverage yet.

The year-of-the-mobile was supposed to change all that, but somehow location still seems to struggle to quite break into mainstream status.

The Checkin Problem

So, what’s the problem?

The checkin itself. And it’s bursting to be solved.

1. Incentive

Why do people say something on Facebook? Because they want to say something to a lot of their friends, who are on Facebook. Why do they share news on Twitter? Because they want to share links to lots of people, who happen to be on Twitter.

Why do people check into venues? Maybe they want to earn badges. Maybe they want their friends to know where they are … they’re not quite sure yet, but they keep on checking in, just in case something really cool starts happening soon.

The really funny thing is, Instagram does a much better job of checking people into Foursquare than Foursquare does, usability-wise. Why do people check Instagram pictures into Foursquare venues? Because they want to take pictures in venues, which are on Foursquare.


See? The incentive is direct, and not indirect. It solves a basic, primary need. What we actually need, is a checkin that does not need a checkin. One that happens automatically when you’re in a place (for Privacy Geeks in Tin Foil hats to go ape-shit over).

For example, if Twitter’s location sharing setting could be turned on by default, with a setting to turn it off, they would suddenly be in the location game (which they aren’t at the moment).

2. The Checkout

How do you know someone is not in a venue anymore? On Foursquare, your checkin lasts for 3 hours (unless you check in somewhere else). After that, you’re not in the venue anymore.

That is why, according to Foursquare’s stats, the highest checkin count is at eight in the morning. After 11, few people remember to check in again. Why would they? There’s nothing that reminds them to, and nothing big happened when they checked in at work this morning. They just did it out of habit.

Also, if you quickly pop into your local corner shop for milk, and check in there, you’ll stay checked in four three hours (unless you check in elsewhere within that three hours).

There’s nothing that checks you out as you leave a venue

3. Venue Boundaries


This is the most difficult one to solve. Foursquare uses your phone’s locating technology to determine if you are in or at a venue. This mainly utilizes a GPS device, which works better the more open sky you can see above and around you. This goes against the concept of being in a venue.

Added to this, even if your location can be determined perfectly, venue density can be quite high in places. Think, for instance of venues on different storeys of a tower block, directly above each other, or venues located in different rooms in the same building.

This makes any kind of auto-checkin impossible.

Google’s solution

Latitude recently added the ability to check into their huge database of venues. Right from the start, they are addressing a few checkin issues:

  • If a user is stationary in or at a venue for a certain amount of time, they will send a push notification to the user’s phone, asking them if they want to check in.
  • A user can configure a set of venues to be auto-checked into when the user is there, without them having to fiddle with their phone.
  • A user is checked out of a venue when they leave the venue.

These three points combined deal with the first two of my gripes with checkins, namely Incentive, and The Checkout. Brilliant!

The problem with this solution, of course, is that Google has many assets to protect, one of which happens to be a mobile platform. Thus, they went forth and pushed these exciting new features only to Latitude for Android. What a pity that such a great idea has to be hidden from the largest part of the mobile community.

The Stealth Solution


About two weeks ago, Robert Scoble went on a huge rant about a new iPhone app called Color. Despite the worst user interface in human history, Color managed to raise $41m in funding, so Scoble hoped that “Color has a secret plan we’re not all seeing”

Then, about a week ago, he did a 49-minute interview with the Color team, and came out all gushing, inspired and full of praise.


These guys have actually cracked the third part of the checkin problem. They use audio clips taken from the phone’s microphone, and a light profile sampled through the camera, to determine when users are in the same room.

I’m going to rephrase that. They know when people are in the same room or space, by listening to the sound coming from their phones’ microphones, and looking at the light coming from their phones’ cameras.

Now THAT, is how you do location. Period.

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