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Gowalla, Foursquare and the (very) brief history of the Location Wars

The metaphor of “war” frequently enters the lexicon of commercial web coverage. When the web intersects with the world of business and high finance it evokes the same language and tone—framing healthy competition between similar services as a a cutthroat, zero-sum brawl raging in the skies above the independent web (which mostly ignores it). There was the portal wars, the server wars, the browser wars.

That language hides something that is, in fact, much more boring, rote and slow-moving. As Doc Searls pointed out in the midst of the browser wars:

The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims… the Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.

And though the analogy of war is brought up over and over, there has been none as short-lived as the location wars. The location wars were branded and hyped by the press, then subsequently dissipated in the span of a couple of weeks in March of 2010. The story of the location wars, however, begins a few years earlier.

Dennis Crowley’s first location-based, social media phone service predates the iPhone by nearly a decade. It was a called Dodgeball, developed by Crowley and his classmate Alex Rainert while they were at NYU in 2000. Dodgeball users could text a special number with their location to notify friends in the area that might be nearby—a way of using technology to create spur of the moment hangouts in the real world. In 2005 it was acquired by Google, and though there were high hopes for its integration into early web-based services (notably, Google Maps), Google largely neglected the service and Crowley and Raniert both departed the company in 2007. In 2009, Dodgeball was discontinued.

By then, Crowley had moved on to a new location app, Foursquare, this one built for the newly released iPhone. Taking advantage of the iPhone’s new GPS and geolocation features, the site was able to locate where you were in the world, Foursquare users could “check-in” at places they had been, and collect badges, create lists, and leave ratings for their favorite spots.

But Foursquare’s strength was in its social capabilities. It launched initially in 100 cities, but its center of gravity was in New York City, with near endless spots to explore. Foursquare encouraged interactions with friends—providing ways to review and share your “check-ins”—which encouraged its spread through a person’s personal network. After testing the service for a few months, Foursquare officially released their app in March of 2009.

A side by side screenshot of two screens from the Foursquare app in 2009, showing a list of a user's location badge and a way to check-in with friends
Even early on, Foursquare emphasized social interactions, via Tech Crunch

In Dallas, a far cry from New York City, a group of game designers, led by CEO Josh Williams, were also experimenting with the iPhone. Williams had got his start on the web doing pixel and icon design, and had early success launching the icon-swapping site IconBuffet. His company had worked on a few different games, but its most successful was the popular social trading card game PackRat, built for the Facebook platform.

After the iPhone was released in 2007, Williams and some of his team began experimenting with its GPS technology. They built a lightweight check-in experience for the iPhone, and presented it a meetup in Dallas in early 2009. t was an instant hit, and before long they were launching their new product, named Gowalla, in different cities around the country

Like Foursquare, users could use Gowalla to check-in at popular locations using their phone. Gowalla crowd-sourced these locations from users however, meaning they could spread quicker to new areas. But Gowalla’s design credentials was really what shone through in its experience. Rather than focus on exclusively social features, Gowalla’s team crafted strong iconography and badges for various locations, creating digital experiences that enhanced the check-in process for individuals.

A screenshot from the "Passport" screen of Gowalla, which let users browse places they had been
An early iteration of Gowalla, via Laughing Squid

SXSW is held in Austin, Texas every year in March and each year features an interactive section, dedicated to emerging technology and media. The folks at Gowalla thought they might take advantage of a conference that had national attention, but was nevertheless in their neck of woods. They planned to launch their app at the conference in March of 2009. As it turns out, Foursquare was planning the same thing.

The two companies caught wind of each other’s services in the lead-up to the conference, with Foursquare’s app officially released only days before. There were plenty of differences, and the shape and execution felt unique to each. But after the official release of the two apps, investors and the press were pitting one against the other in an all-out war.

Both teams went back home feeling energized, ready to take on the foe they had only just realized existed. Before long, even Williams and Crowley began to feed into the hype, giving interviews sniping at one another (Foursquare allegedly had a time-out chair for people that mentioned Gowalla).

Over the next year, Foursquare and Gowalla ramped up their development cycles, quickly following one release after another with new features, new incentives, and new partnerships. Foursquare continued to consolidate its popularity in New York, while Gowalla moved to a new home in Austin. But each raised a massive round of investment from some of the largest VC firms in Silicon Valley and began hiring teams of people to manage the growth.

By the following year, both services had grown considerably. And the “war”—fed by press coverage, lofty investors, and cocky CEOs—had only heightened. All of which came to ahead in March of 2010, when the “location wars” finally got its name.

One year after their initial launch, Foursquare and Gowalla each came armed with a new release, hoping to capitalize on the festival’s wide coverage in the press. The press, in turn, framed the competition as an epic showdown, winners take all. Investors and venture capitalists were all too happy to give a soundbite or two to journalists covering the event, hoping to boost the value of their investment. And so, both Foursquare and Gowalla heightened the drama as a reaction to the hype, even going as far as to throw massive industry parties on the same night, right across the street from another.

And so, the “location wars” heated up. In online magazines like Fast Company TechCrunch, even CNN, SXSW was a battle to see who had better features, better design, stickier functionality, the most check-ins—who could attract the largest user base, and the largest investors. Some began to pre-maturely call the game for Foursquare, citing a wave of new investment. Others argued that Gowalla’s emphasis on design and experience would be more than enough to challenge the incumbent.

The image Fast Company used to frame the so-called “Check-in wars” pulled imagery directly from Godzilla movies

Of course, the same thing happens that always does. Foursquare and Gowalla spent a year tracking the same exact metrics to try and attach the same exact audience, and as a result, their features converged in their new releases at SXSW, and again in subsequent releases until there was very little different about them at all. After the festival, big players like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp entered the space late, with a more generic entry to their much larger built-in audiences. And because of their now-relative sameness, the upstart first-movers were unable to compete for very long.

Eventually, Gowalla was acquired by Facebook, and folded into its platform (though, more recently, its begun life anew). Foursquare has gone through several iterations and continues to operate today.

Because of the hastened rise and fall of the location wars, it acts a precise look at the way in which the hype cycle for web companies feeds itself. Platforms and websites can be created in total isolation, evolved from the seeds of ideas and experience. But when they are brought together into a single arena, the narrative is formed, be that of “David and Goliath” or an all out war. Companies often feed into this narrative, making it a self-fufillling prophecy.


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