If You Learn to Spin Straw Into Gold, You’d Better Appreciate Gold
Imagine I offered you a small glowing box. You could put it in your pocket, and when you pulled it out, it would tell you almost anything, about anything in the world, almost immediately. You could use it to hear voices, read words and see pictures from anywhere. You could use it to broadcast words and pictures from your life out to anyone on earth.
The box would know who you are and it would know exactly where you are at any given moment. It could tailor what it told you for your particular circumstances. That place you’re standing in right now? The box could zoom in to tell you everything that ever happened in that place, or zoom out and paint an illuminated picture of exactly where you stand in the world, of what was, is and will happen around you in the future. It could tell you things you liked or it could tell you things you didn’t like, if you wanted it to.
This would be a bargain, of course, and that means that some other things would happen, too. Deep in the history of every glowing box would be a small, hazy picture of people doing things to each other that ought never, ever be done. They are horrible things, but they are being done to people very far away. (“In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh…”) And those people have already had so many bad things happen to them before.
The glowing boxes would be truly incredible – they would have the potential to accelerate humanity’s access to knowledge and communication faster than thousands of years of history had accelerated our connection to the world before.
You could use your glowing box for magic.
But once the boxes arrived, most people would agree: most people wouldn’t really want to use them for much beyond the simple things in life. Clipping mobile coupons. Playing mobile Farmville.
But aren’t they marvelous, magical, glowing boxes?
Thankfully there are things being done with these boxes that go far beyond the mundane, things that aspire to fulfill their promise and at least in part acknowledge their costs. But when we say that most people will never appreciate things like location apps until they can get $1 off a cup of coffee – there’s something deeply tragic about that.
The Hub and the Spokes
Thanks to the opening of the Places read/write API, you’ll now be able to, at least in theory, use any app you like to check-in, whichever one tickles your fancy, without fear that you’ll lose sight of your friends who are using other services. They’ll be right at your fingers no matter where you go, as long as where you go is attached to Facebook.
Interoperability between social networks means that the social connections available are no longer scarce, and service providers must then compete based on quality and kind of service. Want the push notifications Foursquare offers from groups like the History Channel or the Independent Film Channel when you check-in near a point of interest they’ve annotated? Then use Foursquare; you don’t have to lose track of your friends on other networks when all the networks are tied into Facebook. Want the design elegance and collections of locations gathered into Trips that Gowalla offers? Then use Gowalla. You can still see where your friends are if they are using Foursquare instead.
Want to create a radically new place-based social networking experience? No longer will you need to convince potential users to leave their friends behind on more established networks and wander into your lonely wilderness. You’ll just offer them a new lens through which to view the world and their friends on other networks.
That’s the idea, anyway. Standards, in this case the Facebook Places API, yield interoperability, which yields choice, which yields competition, which yields inovation and improved user experiences.
We’ll all just have to bow down to Facebook as the glue that holds everything together. We’ll have to hope the company doesn’t change its rules in ways we don’t like (again) and hope for the best.
If you’re a person who lives by the slogan that it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees, then this might not seem like good news to you. But if, in these circumstances, your top priority is enrichment of your life and world through social software – then this is good news.
Making the Money
Facebook’s other announcement, Places Deals, means that the coupon-hungry non-early adopters of the world will also now be incentivized to help bring check-ins to scale. That’s good news too for those of us who dream of geolocation innovation enriching our lives.
Places Deals, which we wrote about last week, is a very smart and interesting business move.
Is it interesting outside the economics? Probably not, but in theory it could help pay for development of more interesting technology inside and outside the various circles of the geolocation world.
Without figuring out how to monetize, that world will produce nothing that lasts. Learning how to monetize runs the risk of becoming the sole pursuit, at the expense of cultural enrichment – but that’s the risk we take in cheering for companies building technology.
Below: HP’s Gloe prototype lets mobile users attach, vote on and read web content related to any physical location they visit. That kind of ambient information service represents a meaningful way that geolocation services can add value to our lives.