Facebook location service could kill Foursquare, ignite privacy issues

Social networking site expected to unveil location feature later Wednesday

If all the speculation pans out and Facebook later today unveils a location-based service, the news will excite some users, raise new privacy concerns and make for a really bad day for the folks at Foursquare Labs.

The Internet has been abuzz with conjecture that Facebook is getting ready to take the wraps off a location feature for the phenomenally popular social networking site. All of the speculation surrounds a hush-hush press conference that the company has set up at its Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters for early this evening Eastern time.

Social sites with location-based services, like Foursquare and Gowalla, have been picking up a loyal following in the past year. Facebook apparently wants a piece of that expanding pie.

"If Facebook adds geolocation features, it would open up a whole new world of functionality for their users," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "It would allow users to easily let their friends know where they are or where they've been. Facebook can also easily add functionality that equals what is available from companies like Foursquare, and that would inevitably lead to commercial tie-ins and more revenue for Facebook."

Foursquare, a year-old social networking site, enables users to share their locations with their friends. For instance, when a user walks into a restaurant, she can "check in" on her mobile device and friends will see her location pop up on a Foursquare map.

Gowalla, another major player in the location arena, is a travel game that rewards users for visiting everyday and exotic locations.

It's not yet clear what Facebook would do with a location service. Would it mirror Foursquare or would it offer games like Gowalla?

Analysts say a location-aware feature could be a boon for Facebook -- and really bad news for competing location-based services.

"If successful, this would further embed Facebook into the lives of its users and could hold off what appears to be a declining interest in the service by making it new and fresh again," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group. "Depends how successful this is. But, assuming success, FourSquare likely becomes redundant over time."

Olds agreed that Facebook's entry into location services could spell trouble for the folks at Foursquare.

"If Facebook does add this functionality, it will probably destroy the smaller companies already in this space," said Olds. "Facebook just has too many users for smaller sites like Foursquare to effectively compete. They might survive for a while, but they will definitely have to make radical adjustments to either their services or their business model in order to keep out of Facebook's way."

However, Olds also noted that Facebook will have to tread cautiously as it rolls out any location-based service if it doesn't want to create another privacy commotion.

Many users have been angry and frustrated in recent months over Facebook's privacy policies, as well as its privacy controls. Both Olds and Enderle said Facebook will have to make sure that users -- particularly those who don't want to broadcast their whereabouts -- will have their privacy protected.

"If this isn't handled well, it could easily make the PR problems we have already seen seem trivial by comparison," Enderle said. "Location-aware services, if misused, could identify vulnerable children or unmonitored properties, either of which could result in catastrophic events."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
Windows 10 annoyances and solutions
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.