Say hello to seamless, location-aware apps: Is this the end of the check-in?

exampleGeo-social has proven to be somewhat tricky territory. While it appears that many users want to interact with their location, how and how much remains undecided. Privacy implications arise at every turn, and what exactly crosses the line into over-sharing in this segment is an important and unanswered question–all while developers are reinventing how we broadcast our whereabouts. 

Manufacturing serendipity

Location apps have been trying to introduce frictionless sharing long before Facebook attached the term to its new class of Open Graph apps. The basic concept is the same as Facebook’s: allowing people to seamlessly, very nearly unknowingly, push information about something they____. You can replace that blank with cooked, bought, want, etc. Or, you could turn that “something” into “somewhere.”

We’re beginning to see more and more apps use your smartphone’s GPS activity automatically, sending updates about where you are and connecting that to a social graph (likely Facebook) for the purpose of connecting you with people, places, and events.

One of these such apps is Highlight, which is going through a beta testing round in San Francisco right now, but is available for download via iOS. The app uses Facebook to find people you’re friends with as well as friends of friends and then notifies you when they’re nearby. It doesn’t just surface a name and location, it also lets you know what they do and what you might have in common.

highlightHighlight, and apps like it, want to inject a little bit of serendipity into geo-social, which as it stands requires human effort. What it wants to do is kill the physical check-in—that barrier keeping so many of us from actually using location apps (and yes, which others obsessively love).

hipgeo iphoneHipGeo is using this “life-recording” template as well: the travel-based app passively runs in the background to collect where you go and the pictures you take there, and then produces collages of your journeys without requiring anything from you except activation. For instance if you take a picture in Texas and then another in Santa Fe, HipGeo will seamlessly record how you got from point A to B, the images, and later provide it all for you in a rich visual design.

“I think you have a segment of people who are very comfortable with checking in, and then a segment who don’t want to take the time—and we’re addressing this,” says HipGeo chief product manager Rich Rygg. “When you look at Foursquare the check-in is centric to their model, it’s an awareness thing: ‘I’m here, and I’m checking in.’ With auto-checking in, you take someone’s location and share it immediately and that’s something that hasn’t been fully developed yet.”

You can’t be geo-social without the social

The backlash to these types of apps will depend on their degree of seamlessness, but the paranoia factor shouldn’t be as big of an issue anymore. Or rather, if it’s focused here it is very misplaced. The entire medium is opt-in, and if you want a location app you execute complete control over, you’ve got more than a few to choose from. Will it be a little eerie the first time you’re using Highlight and you get a ping alerting you that someone you don’t know (a friend of a friend) is around the corner and that he/she also likes snowshoeing and hip-hop? Probably, but by now you know what you’re getting yourself into. There’s no reason to devote any more time to this concern: we’re all allowing social, Web, and mobile platforms to access more and more of our data and this in and of itself is an issue. The various products we’re already giving this information to could potentially lead to the very same problems that doing it with location apps would. It’s a hurdle that has to be surmounted, but our attitudes about data sharing are evolving as we speak and we’re offering up more and more information freely. Moving on.

One daunting problem is what can now be known as the Color dilemma. That is, if no one is using it, it won’t work. This sounds so simple it’s stupid, but it’s actually a rather daunting issue for these startups.

Part of the reason Color’s initially hyped launched was quickly and concretely subdued was because it needed a substantial user base in order to have any effect whatsoever. When pundits and early adopters (including us) attempted to use this revolutionary new technology and couldn’t. The major draw was being able to see constant photo feeds from everyone near you – and since they weren’t there, it was just an empty app.

The new generation of seamless location apps are going to face this problem. If they want to actually connect people, they’ve got to get them there. Fortunately, all these contenders can learn from Color’s relaunch—and that means integrate with Facebook. You either have to do that or establish your own platform that has personal use aside from connecting. If you have a diary aspect, like HipGeo and Path do, then you can have significance without multi-user interaction.

So yes, there are some  battles left to be waged over fighting user concerns regarding their location data being collected, as well as getting them to want to participate in this type of social network. But the check-in is quickly becoming outdated and honestly, often-mocked (Facebook killed it for a reason, replacing with a more sophisticated format).

A little help from Facebook

So what are these complaints? The simplest of them is battery life. Initial trials of Highlight have shown that keeping it running will, unsurprisingly, drain your phone. Rygg says HipGeo, when fully functioning, will do the same, but there are settings that allow your smartphone to know when to conserve battery life and alter the degree of its location tracking.

map facebookThe evolution of these apps (as well as of smartphones) is the path to solving this complaint, and in the grand scheme of this segment, it’s a minor detail.

What could prove to give these seamless check-in apps a helping hand is the Facebook Open Graph. It’s a big step for the lifestreaming trend, where users are constantly creating and sharing content about everything they do. The ease with which users are going to slide into this on Facebook is going to translate to other social applications, including location-based ones. Facebook offers a good assessment of the collective hearts and minds of social users, and while there’s been backlash to the Open Graph, we’re already seeing its success play out.

Integration with Facebook will probably be a natural step as well. At the moment, the new class of apps for Timeline are limited—but the new version of Color is included there. It’s now an auto-video streaming app, where you broadcast quick, soundless videos and livestream them to friends so you both experience the same thing at the same time.

We want to collect, create, and share more and more content, with as little effort as possible. So while the geo-social segment has been plagued by mounting problems, this next generation of apps  is quietly and innovatively finding the solutions.