Facebook Places is at the beginning of a long road

Facebook Places on the iPhone
Facebook Places on the iPhone

Facebook’s much awaited Places product finally launched this week. It’s the first step toward bringing friend finding to the masses.

People have been using Facebook to do this for years; posting their location in freeform status updates that their friends can read and comment on. (e.g. “heading to Cambridge for dinner.”) By turning that freeform text into structured location data, Facebook can make that data more useful.

From an iPhone or HTML5-capable mobile device, you can check in to a place, such as a restaurant, bar, movie theater, airport. You can also leave a message with the check in. The check in is posted to your wall and may appears in friends’ news feeds. On the mobile side, you can see a list of your friends and where they’ve checked in. Clicking on a place will show you details of the place, including a map and who has checked in.

The initial release is fairly simple. In fact, it’s not that much more useful than the freeform status updates.

Facebook is entering a very crowded space with competitors such as foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Google Latitude, Whrrl and Twitter. Many of those products are much more robust. Facebook’s key advantage is the size of its social graph: within the past 24 hours, 18 of my friends have checked in.

There are many opportunities for improvement to Facebook Places:

  • Basic UI. Check ins are sorted by time, not distance. A friend checking in 2,000 miles away 2 minutes ago is less relevant than someone checking in 2 miles away 5 minutes ago. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the city isn’t shown. Considering that many people use Facebook to keep track of friends all around the world, this is a significant issue. Foursquare has a separate bucket of “Friends in other cities.” Update: Facebook now has a separate grouping of nearby friends.
  • Map view. Often, visualizing your friends on a map is much easier than scanning a list. Foursquare already offers this.
  • Visiting friends. Out of town friends who are in town aren’t indicated. One of the big potential values of social friend finding is discovering when friends are in town. If a friend from far away is visiting, I’m more inclined to want to get together than someone who lives in town.
  • Pictures. There is no way to associate a picture with a check in. Given the difficulty in typing on mobile devices, often a picture gives a lot more information. These pictures could also be used to build a much more robust Place page.
  • Pushing location. Sending people your location via SMS is tedious. You have to address the message, type out where you are. If they don’t know where it is, they have to pull up a map or text you back for directions. With Places, it would be easy to push a notification to friends with where you are, complete with map. This could be sent as a push notification on iPhones or as an SMS with a URL for other phones.

As with most Facebook product launches, questions of privacy come up. In general, I think Facebook has done a good job with the default privacy settings on Places. You must explicitly check in; there is no background tracking.

Only your friends can see where you’ve checked in. Unfortunately, my social graph on Facebook wasn’t designed with location in mind. When I decided whether or not to accept friend requests on foursquare, I used a tighter filter than on Facebook. Now, I’ll have to go back through Facebook friends and create a list of who should have access to location. (See Post technology columnist Rob Pegoraro’s piece on how he classifies his friends.) Yes, old high school friends have been known to burgle homes based on Facebook updates. If that worries you, watch Rob’s video on how to adjust your privacy settings for Places.

The one big complaint I have with the privacy defaults is that your friends can check you into a location without your permission.

See also:

Heading toward the Facebook recommendation engine

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

There’s an interesting thread over at Mike Blumenthal’s blog on the effect of Facebook Places on the local reviews space.

My view is that reviews and updates will coexist, much as blogs and Twitter coexist. People who were less committed to reviews will migrate their activity to Facebook Places updates. But Places could lead toward the ultimate recommendation engine.

In the local space, there’s really only one review site that matters: Yelp. They’ve got a strong set of tools and an active and engaged community. New restaurants and bars, which are often of the most interest, will have a dozen reviews on Yelp a year before they even show up on many Yellow Pages sites.

There are three big challenges with Yelp:

  • It’s been too successful. Many restaurants have hundreds of reviews. Although Yelp provides great tools for analyzing the data, it can still feel overwhelming. It also discourages participation from more casual users. In the early days of Yelp, I was an active reviewer. That’s tapered off substantially — what’s the marginal benefit of me writing the 426th review of a place?
  • These aren’t my real friends. I don’t know how compatible their tastes are with mine. It also affects the propensity to write reviews. People are more likely to do something that helps their friends than something that helps a generic audience.
  • Skewed demographics. Yelp primarily caters to a young, urban demographic. If you’re a mom in the suburbs, its value is more limited.

Facebook Places lowers the bar to participation and ties it into real-life social networks. Instead of writing out a long review, a few clicks is all it takes. Combine that with Facebook’s large user base on mobile devices — its monthly uniques on mobile devices is 4x Yelp’s monthly uniques on the Web — and we’ll see a tsunami of local data. (For more on importance of massive amounts of data, watch Google’s Peter Norvig’s talk.)

While each blip may not be as rich as the data in Yelp, you could build a recommendation engine to infer a lot from that data.

If I see that a place I am considering visiting is regularly frequented by my friends with families, I can infer that it is good for kids. Positive reviews can be inferred by friends going back to a place regularly. There are some friends who I have negative taste relationships with. If I know that they’re regulars somewhere, I know not to go there. Facebook can also make recommendations based on places I’ve visited and the overlaps with places my friends have visited. Facebook also has real demographic information which could be used to tailor recommendations.

Status updates in the social network also prompt discussions. Even if the original poster doesn’t write a review, it may be followed up by “hey, I was thinking of going there. what did you think of it?” Facebook could also close the loop by prompting people to add star ratings, Like or add comments a few days after a check in.

When it comes to restaurant reviews and recommendations, most people are looking for “good enough”. While you could spend hours reading every Yelp review of several restaurants and possibly get a better answer, a recommendation based on your friends’ activity is probably nearly as good. Facebook has done really well with good enough; Facebook Photos dominates online photo sharing, despite many functional weaknesses when compared with flickr.

I built a prototype of this when I was at AOL Search and even with a few users in the system, it worked really well.

More on: Facebook, local search, Yelp

See also:

United's mobile check in not ready for takeoff

On my last trip, I had the opportunity to try United’s mobile check-in and mobile boarding passes. The promise is paper-free check in. It sounds really great, but it’s not quite there. Partly it’s due to United’s horrible user interface, partly the newness that gate agents aren’t accustomed to it.

The user interface rarely misses an opportunity to add extra steps.

  • When online check-in opens up, United sends you an email reminding you to check in. But clicking on the link in the email takes you to the full browser version. (It should automatically redirect you to the corresponding page on the mobile site if you’re on a mobile browser.)
  • When you go to http://mobile.united.com, you have to enter your confirmation number (who remembers these?), e-ticket number (ditto), Mileage Plus number (I don’t remember it despite being a top tier flier for years) or email address (long to type). There’s no way to just cookie your email address or MP number for all future check ins.
  • You’re presented with upsells, including the ridiculously overpriced Award Accelerator. (No way to say “I never ever want this.”)
  • After you finally check in, you’d think you get a boarding pass. But now you have to enter an email address to send the boarding pass to. (Never mind that you just logged into your account with an email address; it’s not prepopulated.)
  • You’d think, “OK, now, I’ll get an email with the boarding pass.” Nope. You get an email for each segment. Neither of which contains a boarding pass, but a link to a boarding pass.
  • Instead of using one link tied to your record, there is a link for each flight. If you click on the email for the wrong flight, you can’t just flip to the other flight. You have to go back and open a different email.
  • When you finally get to the boarding pass, you see a 2D bar code read by the scanner, along with your flight and seat information in text.

After doing all of this, I went to the airport without any paper. First step: security. The TSA agent looks at my ID and phone to compare names. He then has me hold my phone over a reader. It beeps and lights up in green. Good to go. At the gate, I hold my phone over the reader. Beep. Green. Board.

At the gate for my connection in Denver, I get paged because the agent wanted me to swap seats with someone else. She asks for my boarding pass. When I say I’ve got a mobile one, she prints out a boarding pass with a new seat assignment. Being a geek, I refresh the screen and see that it shows the new seat and ditch the paper. Unfortunately it doesn’t scan and she has to board me manually.

Leaving SFO, I had to standby for an earlier flight because of weather. Although the boarding pass initially showed my standby status, somewhere along the way that disappeared. (Causing me to panic and race to the big screens in the gate area to verify that I was still on the list.) When I cleared standby, the agent called me up and issued a paper boarding pass. The link I had showed no boarding pass.

In a future ideal world, my phone would beep when I cleared the standby list, I’d click to accept and the screen would show the updated boarding pass. It would free up the mob around the gate, let me get a drink or food and get the plane out faster.

In Denver, my original mobile boarding pass was still valid. It took some fiddling to get it to scan. I thought 2-D bar codes could be held in any direction, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Note that although the boarding pass is generated dynamically, the information is static. If your flight is delayed, you won’t see that reflected. You’ll have to go back to http://mobile.united.com and enter your flight information. It also self destructs after a flight, so if you need documentation for business purposes or making sure you get your frequent flier miles, you might want to stick with paper. (In theory, it shouldn’t be needed for miles purposes, but I don’t like to rely on theory when it comes to airlines.)

More on: airlines

Checking in with foursquare at SFO

SFO is a hotbed of foursquare activity
SFO is a hotbed of foursquare activity. Creative Commons image by Håkan Dahlström.

With the increasing use of mobile applications such as Yelp and foursquare, it’s becoming possible to pull ideas from thin air. Users of these apps can leave tips for others to find that are linked to a specific location.

In most places there aren’t enough tips yet to make filtering an issue. San Francisco International Airport, with more than 57,000 checkins on foursquare, is an exception. It offers a glimpse of what we can expect as these services become more popular. The airport is the perfect petri dish for tips: it serves a technically savvy audience and people often find themselves there with plenty of time on their hands.

The SFO tips page contains dozens of notes including places to eat, complaints, ground transportation, wifi and power availability. Mixed in to all of this are ads, other spam and random observations. Some examples:

have a corned beef sandwich at max’s if you’re flying southwest. the best! well, really good

When you enter short term parking do it as far to the right as you can (lvl 2) & then immediately head to lvl 1. There is always parking next to gate and that is the lvl that connects to the terminal

Free wifi at the Continental lounge in Terminal 1- be warned, it’s located outside Security

Smoking hot brunette woman at gate 20. Stop by and smile at her. She is so lovely!

Bart to Millbrae gets you within 1 block of an in n out burger. Great for 3+ hour layover!

Heading to wine country? Take a moment to stop by St. Supery in the heart of Napa on Hwy 29. Mention this to get a 2 for 1 tasting.

Sorting through the volume of tips can be overwhelming. As the volume increases, we’ll need ways to filter them. Among the ways to filter:

  • Timeliness. Some of the tips, such as wifi at the Continental lounge, are evergreen. Others, like the smoking hot brunette are very timely. Tipsters should be able to flag their tips to self destruct. As I wrote earlier, being able to identify tips by timeliness would allow for new applications, such as sharing rides. (“Anyone want to split a cab to Moscone?”)
  • Social network. Among the tips were tips from people I follow on Twitter, including Danny Sullivan and Adam Lasnik. Being able to surface these would increase relevance.
  • Ads vs. not ads. Sometimes people want ads, especially if it can save them money.
  • Keyword search.

Places like airports are especially complex because they’re really collections of places, sometimes with other groupings and physical restrictions. Being able to filter tips by terminal would also be useful. But then maybe that’s best left to GateGuru.

Now we're going Places

I’ve been writing about Twitter and location since my first post about Twitter in 2007. This week, Twitter launched Places, which allows users to add their location to a tweet.

Here’s a screenshot from 2007:

Twitter location 2007
Embedding location in a tweet the hard way in 2007

and today:

Embedding location in a tweet in 2010

In 2007, I used a third-party application from Where to include my location. Clicking on that link would take you to a map on Where’s site showing the address. (The link in the original post no longer works.)

With the launch of Twitter Places, the search is done within the Web browser (and soon in Twitter’s mobile applications). You can select where you are from a list of nearby places. Clicking on the place name brings up the map above and the option to view tweets about that place.

Although the difference between the two may seem subtle, they are significant:

  • Because the place is metadata, it doesn’t count toward the 140 character limit.
  • Place names are human readable, unlike addresses and latitude/longitude. Knowing the name of a place makes it much easier to find than just a street address, especially in dense metropolitan areas.
  • Places are unique to a specific venue. Doing a pure location-based search would return tweets from surrounding businesses or businesses that have since disappeared.
  • Integration in to the main Twitter experience means broad exposure and eventual standardization of place identifiers. That has been a longstanding challenge in the local space.

Twitter’s geo APIs have been available for several months and third parties like bing have created interesting applications like Twitter Maps. With the availability of places across the Twitter platform, we can expect to see more interesting applications including both real-time applications (ride sharing and ticket exchanges) and historical (restaurant reviews, past events).

Once Twitter allows owners to claim their Place and associate it with a Twitter account, we could see official tweets of announcements and offers incorporated into a Place’s search results.

When pictures are tagged to a Place (instead of a lat/long), we’ll have the ability to visually browse a venue in Twitter.

EVO vs. iPhone

I’ve been using an HTC EVO since last Friday. As an iPhone user for the last two years, this is the first Android phone that has appealed to me.  CrunchGear has a good comparison of the technical specs of the iPhone and the EVO.

The two biggest complaints others have voiced about the EVO are bulk and poor battery life. Yes, it is bulky. It’s the heaviest phone I’ve had in at least 5 years — at 6 ounces, it’s 25% heavier than the iPhone 4G. It’s width makes it more awkward to hold than an iPhone, but not uncomfortably so. But it also has a big, beautiful screen. Life is a tradeoff.

I haven’t had issues with battery life, but then I don’t talk a lot on my phone. Unlike with the iPhone, you can carry around a spare battery.

The other issue that has been mentioned regularly is the on-screen keyboard. The iPhone’s keyboard is less complicated, but the EVO let’s you accomplish more tasks (like entering numbers) without leaving the main keyboard. The one issue I’ve definitely noticed is that some keys on the left side haven’t been registering consistently. (e.g. “A” and “S”)

While others have railed against one or the other, the phones are different enough that they’re likely to appeal to different people. I’ve tried to identify those below.

For typical consumers, my recommendation would be the iPhone, provided that you’re in an area where AT&T’s network isn’t saturated. For me? I’ve got three more weeks to decide.

If you…

… have a lot of music or photos and like iTunes.

Go with the iPhone. I haven’t been able to find a decent media synchronization experience for EVO. I used my iPhone frequently for podcasts and those are easy to set up and synch with iTunes. I also synch photos from my computer to my iPhone. Again, not something I can do with the stock EVO.

… want to customize your phone experience.

Go with EVO. You can customize a lot of elements of how the phone operates. You can create themes for different uses, e.g. a work theme, play theme and travel theme. Each theme can have different applications, shortcuts and widgets. It’d be even nicer if you could change themes automatically based on time of day or location. (e.g. work theme while at the office)

… don’t want to know what a task manager is.

Go with iPhone. Ordinary users should never have to see things like com.google.android.apps.googlevoice. It’s difficult to figure out what apps are running on the EVO. That’s problematic because you could easily have an unknown app running down your battery.

… want something that looks pretty.

Go with iPhone. It’s hard to top Apple design. The EVO is bulkier and certainly looks more utilitarian than iPhone. The EVO screen also shows fingerprints a lot more than my iPhone 3G.

… give out your Google Voice number to friends, family and colleagues.

Go with EVO. The Google Voice integration is incredible. Calls you make can be routed through GV automatically. Calls are logged correctly in the phone and on the GV site. Voicemail is also seamlessly integrated. Text messages aren’t integrated into the phone’s messages app.

… want a broad selection of apps.

Go with iPhone. Yes, it’s not open and yes, Apple can arbitrarily reject apps. But iOS has many more apps written for it. While many of the major apps are on both platforms, I couldn’t find equivalents for flickr or Zipcar on Android. Google Voice is the key exception of an app that’s on Android but not iPhone.

For gamers, the iPhone advantage is even stronger. With the gyroscope on iPhone 4, gaming will only get better.

…  like flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

Go with iPhone. The Facebook and Twitter apps for iPhone are much more polished than their Android counterparts. For example, on the Facebook app, clicking on a link someone has shared sends you on an infinite loop between the shared item and the person’s wall.  (Google VP Vic Gotundra recently gave a Facebook intern an HTC Evo in hopes of getting a better experience on Android.) I couldn’t find an official flickr app for Android.

HTC includes some tools for all three networks that integrate them into the phone’s UI. For example, contact lists from all three can be integrated with the phone’s main contact list. This sounds great — and is the right direction for phones — but the software isn’t ready for prime time. I often see the same people listed 3 or 4 times. (You can manually consolidate these for each person, but that’s a lot of work.) If you set up favorite people, you’ll see when they’ve updated their social networks. Background downloading of status updates also takes a toll on battery life.

… have terrible AT&T coverage.

Go with EVO. AT&T’s networks in SF and NY are overloaded and getting data connections or making a call can be a real challenge.

I’ve had few issues with Sprint’s network. Sprint also includes roaming on Verizon’s network.

… want something that “just works” out of the box.

Go with iPhone. The stock EVO is much more customizable than a stock iPhone. With customization always comes complexity. When iPod came out, a lot of techies criticized it for being a dumbed down MP3 player. Other MP3 players of the time had FM radios! They didn’t tie you into one company! But by stripping away all those extra features, Apple created something that just worked for the most common tasks for most people.

Same is true with iPhone. Owning the entire stack gives Apple a huge advantage in creating a user experience that just works across its enormous userbase. Video calling will work the same across all iPhone 4s. Not true with Android.

With HTC’s Sense UI, Android, Sprint customizations and apps all playing a part, the EVO experience doesn’t hold together.

Although features like social networking integration will be important, what HTC has done with EVO is too confusing for most people.

… want to be able to connect your laptop, iPad or other devices.

Go with EVO. Although AT&T is now offering tethering, they’re charging an extra $20 a month and the usage still counts against your 2GB data limit. For$30 a month, Sprint offers unlimited data and a wireless hotspot that supports up to 8 devices simultaneously. If you don’t need that, you might be able to use an app like PDANet to tether your laptop without paying the $30 a month.

… talk a lot, text a lot, use a lot of data or use navigation and want to economize.

Go with EVO. Sprint’s pricing plans are generally cheaper than AT&T for heavy users. For $80, Sprint includes unlimited nights (beginning at 7pm vs. 9pm for AT&T) and weekends, unlimited calls to any mobile phone (vs. just AT&T customers), unlimited texting (an additional $20 on AT&T) and navigation (extra $10 on AT&T). Sprint also has generous corporate discounts that can knock up to 25% off the bill. Low volume users who can get by with less than 250MB of data a month are better off with AT&T.

… are a world traveler.

Go with the iPhone. With GSM, you’ll at least have the option of international coverage in most countries, even if you have to pay exorbitant roaming rates. Of course, it’s best to unlock your phone and use local carriers if you’re spending any amount of time outside the country.

… are uncertain.

Try EVO. Sprint offers the most generous return policy in the business. You have 30 days to decide whether you like it. If you don’t, you can take it back and you won’t pay anything. They won’t even charge you for the service you used. AT&T will charge you for the service, plus the activation fee, unless you return within 3 days. Sprint’s early termination fee is also lower, $200 vs. $325.

NOTE: Comparisons here are based on a stock iPhone vs. a stock EVO.