Is Foursquare the next big thing?

I have just heard about this today and have signed up to see what its all about, like when I joined Twitter I don’t quite get it yet…but I need to spend more time on it. CNN had this great article about Foursquare last week. What do you think?

Among the Web’s early adopter set it seems that Foursquare  has aligned itself to become next year’s mainstream hit.

Foursquare is a location-based mobile startup which aims to let an individual share his or her location with a group of friends.

It’s a virtual game in which participants earn badges for checking in at various locations; those that check in most become a venue’s “mayor.” By all accounts, this mechanism is as addictive as Twitter, Facebook or checking your e-mail on a BlackBerry.

Originally launched as an iPhone application and seeded by the young early-adopter set in cities such as New York and San Francisco, the site’s founders were able to leap from a ready-made springboard: Twitter.

With users’ “check-ins” being posted to the messaging service, Foursquare was able to gain a foothold in much the same way YouTube built its lead from videos embedded in MySpace pages.

The parallels with Twitter are numerous. As technology early adopter and popular blogger Robert Scoble wrote in September: “Go back three years ago. Twitter was being used by the same crowd that is playing with Foursquare today.”

This week Foursquare debuted the singular piece that launched Twitter into the stratosphere: an API. This application programming interface allows third-party developers to build anything they desire on top of Foursquare’s location-based social network.

It’s been shown time and again that once these ecosystems gain momentum, potential competitors face an arduous task. From Flickr to Google Maps to Twitter and beyond, it’s clear that early critical mass — having enough users and applications to make a service invaluable — sets the stage for a landslide victory.

With the launch of its API, Foursquare looks set to capitalize on this “rich get richer” phenomenon before others can make a play. Foursquare is doing more than wooing users and developers, however: It’s also courting local bars and restaurants.

“Foursquare for Businesses” is a platform for retailers wishing to offer special deals to Foursquare users: Check in to frozen desert maker Tasti D-Lite at two venues in New York, for instance, and you’re eligible for a discount.

Competitors abound

Nonetheless, multiple players are vying for victory in the location-based services market. Between Gowalla, Loopt, Brightkite and Google’s Latitude, Foursquare will by no means have an easy ride. While Gowalla debuted an early version at SXSW 2009 alongside Foursquare, both Loopt and Brightkite have a head start.

All of these services, I’d argue, lack the highly addictive game play that appears to have Foursquare users hooked.

One company may unwittingly squash Foursquare in its infancy: Twitter itself. The very service that propelled Foursquare to prominence is rapidly building out its location-based features, with a location API that directly challenges Foursquare. Twitter already has the critical mass of users and ecosystem of eager developers. If it executes correctly, the service could leave Foursquare in the dust.

In Foursquare’s favor: Young, fast-growing startups such as Twitter often find their engineering teams overstretched simply trying to achieve scale. Twitter has added less than a dozen new features since launch as preventing frequent downtime has become its greatest challenge.

Foursquare may network its way to the top in 2010 or find itself lost in an increasingly competitive landscape. Early adopters are betting on the former

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