If you follow the technology business at all, you know that one of the hot new trends is “checking in,” whereby you use an application on your smartphone to tell the world, or at least your friends, where you are. Using the now free wifi at your local Starbucks? Check in. Just ordered a Manhattan at the hip new bar? Check in from there. You can see where your friends are, and vice versa, and if you check in frequently enough, you may get special status.
There are a jillion companies offering these applications now, each with annoying names reminiscent of the dot com boom of a decade ago: Loopt, Whrrl, Gowalla, Foursquare (now with Snoop Dogg on the service!) and Check.in to aggregate them all. Plus big players are expected to enter the business: Yelp already has, Google is circling, and Facebook is the 800 pound gorilla everyone fears, with rumors that they are buying Hot Potato.
The question is whether any of these services will be more than just another fad briefly embraced by fedora-wearing technorati hipsters in SF, NY and Austin. Being “mayor” of the local pub only goes so far. Knowing where your friends are is nice, but email and text can do that. For checking in to have legs, it needs to add actual value beyond its current novelty. Getting discounts from the bars and restaurants where you check in frequently – now that is valuable. Assistance in meeting members of the opposite sex (or same sex…however you roll) is valuable.
Clear and tangible benefits need to be provided, and in a way that can’t be gamed; bars won’t participate if they are getting scammed for free drinks. All the check in players are working on this – they aren’t stupid – but nobody has hit on a winning formula yet. In the meantime, when you read the breathless press about this amazing new capability, remember that it’s not a business yet. Or, appreciate the savagery of Time magazine, which called Foursquare “just another tool tapping into a generation of narcissism.”