Friday, June 04, 2010

Location, Location, Location

Yes the joke has been made before - what has long been said about the real estate industry is now also true of the mobile industry and even of the Internet more broadly as mobile access continues to grow and eventually becomes the primary way we access the Internet. The ability to detect a user's location is changing the way we design and use applications and is already creating enormous new business opportunities. What is truly amazing is that this is only the first of a series of sensors we'll carry with us in our phones -- the "low hanging fruit" of the mobile revolution that the 2010s will bring to our society.

Data courtesy of Open-FirstHere at Open-First we have been studying the emergence of the mobile paradigm and have been applying our knowledge in advising our corporate clients. The graph shown here is an important key to understanding the tremendous shift underway. It shows the first 5 quarters of user growth for the now enormously popular Twitter service, and the more recently launched Foursquare service. Both of these services can be seen as "lightweight social networks" in the sense that they provide one particular way in which people will interact, as opposed to Facebook and others that aggregate a variety of interaction modes.

But Foursquare reached 1 million users in half the time that Twitter did, even after a huge growth spurt for Twitter following the 2007 SXSW conference, largely acknowledged as the point at which the technology world "discovered" Twitter. Why has Foursquare grown so much more quickly?

In our opinion the disparate growth has everything to do with what Geoff Moore called in his famous book of the same name, "Crossing the Chasm." At the risk of losing all of the subtlety of Geoffrey's invaluable book (go buy it and read it if you haven't already) the simple explanation for how a product moves from "visionaries" to "pragmatists" is by providing some easily understood real value in the use of the product. Thus the difference in the growth rate of Twitter and Foursquare in our view was the time it took for each to establish that value.

Foursquare's advantage in this race was location. The shift is at once subtle but fundamental. Twitter is at heart a message bus, merely a facility that enables a wide range of activities. But Foursquare inherently incorporates purpose into its use. One could even say that location is a proxy for purpose -- I am in a particular place because I am doing a specific thing there. Others that come to that place are likely to be doing something similar for similar reasons. I immediately share purpose with others -- a social network of purpose will prove its value much more rapidly than a social network of interest like Twitter.

And even aside from mobile we currently have an explosion of social networks of purpose. The social buying site Groupon for example. But the other important aspect of Foursquare is the way in which it is leveraging a mobile sensor, in this case GPS for establishing location. This is important because we are about to see an explosion in the number and variety of sensors deployed in the built environment and on our bodies, generating vast new quantities of data, often into social pools (see Dr. Andreas Weigend's Social Data Revolution for more on this).

In each case, as a type of sensor is popularized, new applications (and new businesses) will emerge and because they will be tightly coupled with purpose, these applications will leap to "pragmatists" quickly and grow in importance and use quickly. What are these other sensors you ask? How about a device that accurately monitors how many calories you are burning? Or a personal pollutant sensor? Location will be extended to monitor social proximity and we'll also know more and more about an individual's activities while with others based on text, audio, and visual content collected and correlated based on content location tagging.

Our mobile phones have been turned into a global distributed sensor network. These devices will contain an increasing level of sophistication in what they are able to sense and transmit into networked database that will then overlay and correlate data from other sources. In a recent guest post for TechCrunch Robert Scoble imagines how this new world of location based services will change the way we live -- Location 2012.

And really, this is just the beginning.


Keane said...

Foursquare leverages the existence of Twitter to gain followers.

Ted said...

Hey Keane! Great to hear from you. I agree that Foursquare uses whatever tools are available in their environment to market themselves, just as Twitter has done... Are you saying that Twitter is some kind of fundamental shift in the way that web services can market themselves so that explains why a service today would grow so much faster? While I am sure that Twitter helped get the word out for Foursquare, there still has to be an underlying reason that people wanted to tell each other and wanted to use the service.