UPDATE: As of today (August 20, 2010), Places in Facebook is available natively for iPhone (update your FB app, if you haven’t already), as well as on any mobile device that has a browser that supports HTML5 and geolocation.  If you have a non-iPhone mobile browser that fits the bill, visit touch.facebook.com to get started with Places.

On Wednesday (August 18th, 2010), Facebook rolled out its much anticipated “Places” for mobile.  Like other location-based services, Places allows users to “check in” to locations and venues that are already in the system, or even add their own.  Additionally, Facebook users can tag their friends at the same location and add a brief description of the outing, providing something of a mini-history of the individual’s or group’s night out on the town.

With Facebook wading into the fray of location-based services, what do already-established contenders like Foursquare have to fear?

If we examine the idea on the basis of the kinds of services that Facebook Places and Foursquare offer, I don’t think Foursquare has much to fear.  Places is very stripped down in its current iteration–there are no badges, no points, no mayorships for the checkin-er to win and display proudly.  You can’t add tips to Places, and there’s no idea of a “to-do” list.  Finally, if you like the advantages offered by local businesses for mayors, frequent checkins, and the like, you’ll not find any such thing in Places.

Now for a Foursquare user who happens to like the “game” aspect, Places feels downright dull.  And based on Facebook’s approach with other modules, I don’t see a transition to a game for Places anytime soon.  Facebook will let its users do what they will with the service, and will open it up to developers to create their own Foursquare iterations.  Few of them will gain traction, and from this perspective I see Foursquare remaining quite secure.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem for Foursquare is precisely its strength.  While geeks like me love the game aspect of Foursquare, and get giddy when securing yet another mayorship (I have 9 right now), the vast majority of users don’t have time or interest in such diversions.  And when we consider Facebook’s half-a-billion users, a stripped down location-recording service that is accessible to everyone is a stroke of brilliance.

Moreover, when we consider that the 3 million Foursquare users are undoubtedly Facebook users as well, there are diminishing opportunities for Foursquare to make a major impact in Facebook’s numbers….if Places simply explodes (which it probably will).

How Does Foursquare Survive?

Just because Facebook Places is sure to rapidly eclipse the Foursquare user-base by the end of the weekend does not mean the end for Foursquare, however.  In essence, its weaknesses are also its greatest strengths.  For those of us who love Foursquare, we love it because it’s fun.  If Foursquare is to survive Places, it needs to focus on what it does best (the game), and do it better.  Here are a few suggestions I have for how Foursquare can solidify its position, and even expand.

  1. Make the game more gamey: While the game is fun, sometimes the purpose of it gets lost in the frequency of checkins.  Foursquare needs to figure out a way to make the game more meaningful, both in terms of enjoyment and reward.  Badges, mayorships, and better stats than your friends is great, but the payoff needs to be bigger.  Maybe special rights for a weekend with Foursquare functionality?  Being able to create custom badges?  Something.
  2. Improve “Specials”: One of things I think holds great promise for Foursquare is the integration of “Specials” which businesses can offer for Foursquare users.  While Foursquare can’t obviously compel businesses to do this, it could make the service better by allowing for Specials to be more visible and searchable.  Instead of simply alerting users that there are specials nearby to their most recent checkins, how about letting them search for specials more generally?
  3. Better Venue Management: A big problem for Foursquare has been the issue of duplicate venues, bad venue info, and other location-based errors.  To solve this, Foursquare has implemented a clunky system of varying levels of “Superusers” who can edit venue information, merge duplicates, and delete cheats.  For the rest of us, however, we are forced to use the stupid and clunky forum to post change requests.  In all fairness, most of my requests have been managed very rapidly, but it’s still annoying.  Foursquare says that they do this to avoid cheating, and I understand this. However, surely there are better ways to enable to vast majority of honest users to make the service better when they notice mistakes, than to penalize everyone with obnoxious protocols for the sake of a few bad apples.

Wrapping Up

Obviously, whenever Facebook and its massive user-base wade into any new service, the contenders already in that space have much to fear.  However, this can be a good thing for the likes of Foursquare.  Beyond challenging them to continually improve and refine the service, Places’ appearance will very quickly reveal what is worth keeping in Foursquare, what needs to be overhauled, and what simply needs to be abandoned.  In the end, this will inevitably lead to a much better Foursquare, or the end of a service that simply wasn’t focused enough.  Time will tell what the fate of Foursquare will be.

What do you think?  Leave a comment!  And if you’re a Foursquare user, be sure to follow me and I’ll return the favor :)