How did this all begin? Dodgeball was one of the "original" mobile location apps. It was SMS-only (there was no GPS then). A user, say Dan, could text "@slanted door with friends" to D-O-D-G-E and all of his friends would receive a text saying "Dan checked in at Slanted Door Restaurant, with friends." Dodgeball was acquired by Google in 2005 and basically shut down. The team went on to found Foursquare in 2009.
The next generation of geolocation apps basically consisted of location reporting and tracking between friends, pioneered by Loopt and later Google Latitude. People could choose to share their real-time location with others and in turn subscribe to friends' real-time location.
Companies quickly realized that people don't care about location in the latitude and longitude sense. People want to know about the places their friends are going—restaurants, bars, shops, cafes. The current generation has added proactive real-world recommendations and game-like elements like virtual goods, property, and status for "checking in" to certain places. As Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley put it, "the point of the service isn't I'm here, but I'm here, so now what?"
Foursquare's badges create real-life incentives and foster competition between users to encourage greater use
Foursquare has revived the original Dodgeball concepts of check-in and badges. For example, users receive a "bender" badge for bar-hopping four nights in a row or a "gym rat" badge for checking in to 10 "gym" locations within 30 days. Checking in at a certain location more times than anyone else earns you the title of "mayor," and some businesses now offer free drinks or snacks to the Foursquare mayor of their location.
Gowalla is similar to Foursquare but with fewer badges and more "items" to pick up and drop off in places (in other words, more gaming, less status). It is the second mover, but regarded by many as having a much better code base and product design.
MyTown is GPS-enabled Monopoly with real physical places. Users can buy places and collect rent from others who check in to those places.
With its new Pulse application, Loopt has expanded beyond its original auto-location update functionality and now pushes active recommendations for places and events based on where you are and what your friends are doing. They have partnered with Zagat and Citysearch to provide restaurant recommendations and reviews. One of Loopt's greatest strengths is compatibility across over 100 mobile devices.
Last month, Yelp too introduced check-in and leaderboard features on their iPhone app, which already has over 1.25M users. Yelp's augmented reality app, the first released specifically for US iPhones, ignores the personal relationship building, social networking aspect of Foursqare and Loopt and instead connects users to the entire internet spectrum of opinion. A GPS and compass system pinpoints the iPhone's location, so that pointing the phone at a store, business or restaurant displays icons of Yelp reviews overlaying the iPhone's live camera view.
Yelp's iphone app offers an augmented reality overlay, displaying icons and tips over a real world view
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