Total Pageviews

Thursday, August 29, 2013

With New App, Foursquare Strives to Be ‘Magic’ in Your Pocket

Foursquare, the social network built on persuading users to “check in” to locations they’re visiting and share relevant tips with others, is preparing to ditch the check-in entirely.

On Thursday, the New York company plans to announce the first public test of a new version of its service that will automatically detect what restaurant or neighborhood a user is in and make suggestions accordingly. The new app, which has no official name, will be given to about 2,000 Android users in the next few weeks and rolled out broadly later this year.

“What we’re launching here is this smarter version of Foursquare that can sense where you are and give you the best recommendations,” said Dennis Crowley, Foursquare’s co-founder and chief executive, in an interview. He said it would be as if you got all of the advice from all of your friends, shrunk down into a single voice that whispers the most relevant information, unbidden, as you walk by.

As an example, he said that when he visited Mo’z Cafe in San Francisco on Wednesday morning, the new app “told me the thing people talk about here are the breakfast burritos and this particular type of iced coffee.” No need to open the app, search for the cafe and check in to tell the service where he was.

“We’ve basically removed the friction from Foursquare,” Mr. Crowley said. “We’ve made a piece of magic that lives in your pocket.”

Foursquare didn’t make the new app available for reporters to try out, so it is hard to say if it is really magical. Foursquare tried something similar in 2011 with a feature it called Radar, only to see it fail, in part because the constant location tracking chewed up the phone’s battery life. Mr. Crowley said Foursquare has licked that problem, with the new app draining less than 1 percent of the battery per hour.

For Foursquare, jazzing up its service in a big way could lead to new interest among users and advertisers. Foursquare says that it has about 35 million users and 6 million check-ins a day, and that it is adding about 1.5 million new users a month as it expands in foreign markets like Russia, Brazil and Turkey. It has been slowly expanding its efforts to sell advertising to reach those users, including through a new self-service ad platform for local merchants.

Mr. Crowley envisions that eventually 100 million people or more will use Foursquare to help them find the best, most relevant location information.

While that might be its own bit of magical thinking, if the new app is as robust as Mr. Crowley claims, it would be a huge technical achievement. A phone that always knows where you are and automatically gives you timely, relevant information without being annoying is a holy grail in the mobile world.

Google, for example, is trying to predict what you will search for next with its Google Now feature for Android phones. But so far, the technology is clunky, basing its guesses on clues from your search history, Gmail and calendar entries.

Foursquare is taking a different approach. It mines your personal check-in history, as well as what your friends have recommended and the accumulated data from six billion check-ins by users since its founding in 2009, to make recommendations the company says are highly personalized.

Will automatic recommendations seem creepy, as if your phone were HAL 9000 and knows too much about you? Initially, Mr. Crowley said, the new version will make only a couple of unsolicited suggestions per week, with users getting the option of increasing the frequency as they get comfortable with the idea.

The new technology still needs additional refinement, he said, but he is enthusiastic.

“This is what we started the company for,” Mr. Crowley said. “Everything has been built leading up to this moment.”