Time for Free Software to Square up to Foursquare

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I've never been one to follow the latest digital fashions immediately. I didn't start blogging until November 2005, and I only joined Twitter in January 2009, and identi.ca in May 2009. And so it is that I haven't joined Foursquare, or any of the other location-based social networks. That's partly because I like to wait, to see whether it's just a passing fad or something more enduring, and partly because I frankly haven't seen the point. Maybe it's about this:

In January, Canadian newspaper chain Metro did a deal with Foursquare that tied content like restaurant reviews to specific locations as "tips." When we saw that, we said that the era of location as platform had arrived. Then, in April the Wall St. Journal began experimenting with location-based news, adding interesting news tidbits to locations around New York City on Foursquare. That was getting interesting - not just lightweight content like restaurant reviews but things like a note that a terrorism suspect was once arrested in a particular location!

Now the next logical step is to enable users to opt-in to having a publisher's content pushed to them. That's what IFC and on a smaller scale, the Huffington Post, have done today. Click to follow these publishers, check in near one of the locations they have annotated and your phone will get special tips pushed to it just like you get when near a place where one of your individual friends has left a tip.

So, Foursquare et al. become like microblogging accounts that you subscribe to, but instead of being posts in time, they are posts in space (with a bit of time thrown in, I imagine, as posts are added and updated). I can see the point of that: just as I subscribe to various people or organisations on microblogging services for their views and information through time, so I might subscribe to people or organisations for their views and information as I move through geography.

But that still leaves all the rather tiresome paraphernalia of “unlocking badges” and “becoming mayor” etc. - without doubt, the main reason why I haven't joined Foursquare. What I want is a way to subscribe to geolocated streams without all this nonsense.

That's a clear opening for other companies, and I think we're already beginning to see how that may be done in interesting experiments such as here:

Meet Google Open Spot, the latest addition to Google Labs, which has just released a new application for Android phones.

The service is really straightforward: fire up the Android application (it doesn’t look like there’s a web-based version yet), and you’ll see a map with nearby open parking spots marked with colored dots. These spots were placed by other users, who are supposed to hit the app’s ‘Mark a Spot’ button when they leave a crowded parking lot or happen to see an open spot as they walk by.

The color of each available spot is tied to how long ago it was marked by another user —a spot that’s 10-20 minutes old will look yellow, while a spot marked within the last five minutes will be bright red. After 20 minutes spots are removed from the map. You’re able to see parking spots within a .9 mile radius of your current location.

That's very similar to the Foursquare location layers that give you information relevant to your position. But the great thing about Google's Open Spot is that I don't need to check in to anything: Google Android tells the system where I am. Isn't that the obvious way for it to work?

Indeed, why do we need to download a separate Android app? Perhaps Mozilla needs to accelerate its work in this area. If it doesn't, then the danger is that we'll get another Facebook: a client and company so dominant in its field that it will be hard for open source contenders to fight against it. The time for free software to square up to Foursquare is now, not a few years down the road....

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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