The problem with location technology is us

Foursquare location services NORTH Portland
We live in a bubble. And by we, I mean those of us who either work in disciplines that require us to keep up with technological knowledge on behalf of our clients, or who are early adopters: and young.

I was reading a NY Times article this morning on how Google, Foursquare, Gowalla, Shopkick and most recently Facebook, all offer services that let people report their physical location online. And smelling the money, venture capitalists began pouring $115 million into location start-ups since last year.

The problem is that you need a decent smartphone or similar device to access these services and although there are millions of them in people's hands, most of them don't want to share their location. It's the old 'you can lead the horse to water...etc' conundrum. [Update: It has been pointed out to me that you can use SMS for checking in to Foursquare on non-smartphones. Yes, I live in a bubble.]

The article points out that "just 4 percent of Americans have tried location-based services, and 1 percent use them weekly, according to Forrester Research. Eighty percent of those who have tried them are men, and 70 percent are between 19 and 35."

Then there's the problem of the over-hyping of these services in tech media. As Maggie Fox, the founder and CEO of Social Media Group, writes in her post - Foursquare - Shiny Object or Mainstream?:

"Over the weekend, Foursquare scored a major coup via a new partnership with American Eagle: they got their name and logo plastered all over Times Square. The first story I saw on the subject was on Mashable, where blogger Samuel Axon noted,

“It seems like just a short time ago that these location services were only used by a few hardcore web tech geeks. Now they’re so mainstream that they’re taking up a chunk of the New York skyline.”

Um. No.

Foursquare has just over three million users and you need a smartphone to use it. It is far, far from “mainstream”. And the article in Mashable feels like something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately – mistaking a brand using a niche and emerging web service [the “shiny object” in the title of this post] as a way of positioning themselves as cool and hep, for some sort of validation of something as “mainstream”.


In the end, the pundits predict, the battle over who wins the location game will be between Google, Foursquare and Facebook. Unfortunately, at the moment, Foursquare doesn't have the users nor the financial muscle to escape the Google/Facebook sandwich. And all these companies have to make location service use mainstream - somehow.