Sunday, May 11, 2014

Meet Swarm: Foursquare's ambitious plan to split its app in two

Foursquare, daily in your pocket

Looking back it is already many years since social networks are contentious partner of our social life. The first one i personal registered was OpenBC. OPEN Business Club AG was founded in August 2003 in Hamburg, Germany and helped to connect business people to keep in contact, like collecting business cards. Business cards can change when people move on to a new position or to a new company. The platform was officially launched on 1 November 2003. It was renamed from OpenBC to XING on 17 November 2006.

Many social networks came over time, and since the early days of social networks I was a fan of Foursquare. Foursquare is a location-based social networking website for mobile devices, such as smartphones. Users "check in" at venues using a mobile website, text messaging or a device-specific application by selecting from a list of venues the application locates nearby. Location is based on GPS hardware in the mobile device or network location provided by the application, and the map is based on data from the OpenStreetMap project. Each check-in awards the user points and sometimes "badges". The user who checks in the most often to a venue becomes the "mayor," and users regularly vie for "mayorships."

To take on Yelp, Foursquare is moving beyond the check-in

Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley has spent the last year trying to convince the world that Foursquare isn't what it used to be. The company emerged back in 2009 with a novel app that let people “check in” to a location. That vision, and the local information that followed, propelled it to amass tens of millions of users, hundreds of millions in funding, and billions upon billions of data points from people who used Foursquare to check in around the globe. The problem was, in 2014, that story no longer worked for Foursquare. In fact, it was holding the company back. 
Earning points and badges with check-in

“Listen, the point of the company, this whole thing, was never to build an awesome check-in button,” says Crowley. “That’s not the thing we got out of bed and said, that we wanted to build the most awesome check-in button in the world!” Back in 2009 declaring your location was a necessity, because phones didn’t have the power to reliably pinpoint a user, and Foursquare didn’t have much data on what venues were nearby. By 2014, however, both the technology and the data have finally come of age.

With the check-in front and center, however, Foursquare was still struggling to enter the mainstream and saw its user growth overtaken by younger startups. The company had created a new paradigm around location sharing, but that activity was never going to be as popular as snapping a selfie, sharing a link, or firing off a tweet.

So Crowley decided it was time to do something radical. “What if we don't need people to check in anymore?,” he asked. “What does a version of Foursquare look like that doesn't beg you to check in as soon as you open it up?” Over the last six months, the team has been hard at work on a complete reinvention of the company. In the end they decided that, in order to save Foursquare, they would have to break it half, splitting the iconic service into two separate apps. 

A new baby is born

Now, the company is announcing the first fruit of this labor, a brand new app called Swarm that will exist alongside the current Foursquare app. Swarm will be a social heat map, helping users find friends nearby and check in to share their location. A completely rewritten Foursquare app will launch in a month or so. The new Foursquare will ditch the check-in and focus solely on exploration and discovery, finally positioning itself as a true Yelp-killer in the battle to provide great local search.

Predicted social network change 2014

Early 2014 i reviewed many changes which will happen and dictate people social life in the coming 12 month. Which networks will come up, which will gain momentum and which will disapear.

One of my top 3 predication was the  "The great unbundling", meaning nothing else than social networks will offload services, features and functions into new apps. The reason for this is clear. Mobile apps shall keep slim, more attention to services can be given through an app, measurement of people usage will be easier to be determinate and many more.

The great unbundling

Having the check-in button as the main interface every time users opened the app created a noticeable hurdle for engagement. "Imagine if you opened up YouTube and the first thing it asked you to do was create a video. That would scare off a lot of people," says Bijan Sabet, one of Foursquare’s early investors and a current board member. "Just like you don’t need to tweet to enjoy Twitter, splitting the app in two will help make it clear to a big audience that you don’t need to check in to find value in Foursquare."

During months of testing, the company found that unbundling the two halves of Foursquare made each experience more focused and efficient. Sessions were shorter, but more frequent. And using some simple hooks in iOS and Android, Foursquare can shuttle users back and forth between the two apps with ease, much as Facebook does with its main app and its Messenger app. "By simplifying a lot of the story, and having an app that's dedicated to search and discovery I think it's going to be very clear to people that the search and discovery tools that we built are some of the best in class," says Crowley.

Let's Swarm

Swarm should work very well for seeing who’s around to get one more drink at 1 AM, but Foursquare may have been beaten to the punch by an old rival: Facebook. Two weeks before Foursquare announced its big split, Facebook debuted "Nearby Friends," a feature two years in the making which, for better or worse, looks and acts a whole lot like Foursquare’s Swarm. Facebook first tried check-ins back in 2010. Facebook friend list is far too big for people to be comfortable sharing intimate data like their location, so no hurdle has been discovered here.

Preview of the App Swarm

"Passive location-sharing in a way that people actually want"

A number of similar apps like Highlight, Sonar, and Banjo, which helped you track down friends and interesting strangers, were so broad that they bombed with the mainstream. Both Nearby and Swarm try to ease user’s concerns by providing a sense of which friends are close by without giving away too much detail. Using passive location-sharing in a way that people actually want, is the way of the future predict the makers of the app. People don’t want to be precision-pointed on a map so somebody can go find them in the middle of a park. What they want is for friends to be ambiently aware of where they are, so when they got out of the metro in Dubai, they can say, ‘Who are my 10 friends in Safar park?’"

Most importantly, while you can check in with Swarm, it also passively notes your general location even if you don’t open the app. So if you come out of a subway station and look at your phone, Foursquare will understand that you’re in a new neighborhood and update your status accordingly. This might still seem creepy for some people, but in that sense Foursquare may have one big advantage over Facebook when it comes to ambient location sharing. People who download Swarm are making an explicit decision to provide this kind of data to a specific set of friends.

Cloak: An app to go friends out of the way

This application takes the other road, it loads geo data of friends, so you do not meet these randomly.

The ideology of wanting to share all information with each lasting blows fierce headwinds against: Constant dive on new apps that offer anonymity, delete content after a short time or obfuscate data. First there was Snapchat, which destroyed the images and messages after a few seconds. Then anonymous messaging services such as Whisper or Secret expressly waive real names.

Cloak allows friends and acquaintances to go out of the way. The principle is simple: Cloak uses spatial data that have been publicly shared by friends on Instagram and Foursquare. Then, the app shows exactly where these people have recently found. Later the app will also use data of Facebook and Twitter.

The success of cloak

Many users feel the same, because since the release of the app late March 2014 the application has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. That earned the app a place among the top 50 apps in the App Store, in addition to the service in many U.S. media reports have mentioned. Cloak is currently only available on iOS, a version of Android is not yet known.

Foursquare - Check please

But how can Foursquare personalize its users' results if they are no longer collecting check-ins, the foundation of Foursquare’s recommendation engine? Crowley smiles and says something a bit shocking. He no longer needs check-ins, the meat and potatoes of Foursquare’s entire business and data collection engine for the last five years.

Not only has Foursquare collected 6 billion check-ins, he says, but it has collected 6 billion signals to help it map out over 60 million places around the world. Each place is a shape that looks like a hot zone of check-ins — of times when people have said "I’m here." Foursquare’s "Pilgrim" location-guessing engine factors in everything from your GPS signal, to cell tower triangulation, to the number of bars you have, to the Wi-Fi networks nearby, in order to create these virtual shapes.

Now that it has this data, Foursquare can make a very accurate guess at where you are when you stop moving, even without a check-in, a technology it hopes will allow it to keep its database of places fresh and accurate. Foursquare calls these implicit check-ins "p-check-ins," or Neighborhood Sharing. Take your phone into four or five different Japanese restaurants over the course of six months and without a single check-in Foursquare will learn that you like Japanese food and start making recommendations for you based on that data.

This ability to be contextually aware, to have a general sense of the things that I like based upon where the device has been, and the things that I might like based upon where I’ve been in the past or where my friends have been, that’s a really magical ability of future marketing. Tiny micro-facts are part of what could make Foursquare bigger than a recommendations service, marketers will love it.

For years we promised a service that buzz

"We think of Foursquare as a technology that’s enabling these superpowers… to see around corners and through walls, it’s like I want to find the best stuff that exists within you know, 100 yards, 5 miles, 10 miles of me," says Crowley. "I walked into a restaurant and it told me what to order. I walked into a neighborhood and it told me three places to go to. My plane landed in a city I’ve never been to and it’s telling me that two friends are nearby. That’s stuff that we’re doing now, and I think what people will get is that it’s very clearly the future." 

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