Forecast’s Closure: The Challenge of Check-Ins and Ambient Location Apps

It was called “foursquare for the future” by some, including its own creators, but Forecast wasn’t destined to have the longevity of Dennis Crowley’s location-based platform. After a debut over a year ago in June 2011, as well as a major push this year around South by Southwest (SXSW), the startup announced that it just didn’t have enough cash to continue, and shut down as of July 1. The shutdown marks the second time an app based around location-based services hasn’t worked out for the team, after Hurricane Party made a promising debut at SXSW last year, but failed to gain a solid following afterward.

Forecast’s closure is noteworthy because it straddled two areas that people have seen as potential growth markets in mobile development: check-in services and ambient location apps. Is the startup’s failure to catch on reflective of a general weakness with both of these areas, and a lack of appetite for them among consumers? Or is it simply a sign that this particular combination of elements wasn’t a hit with users.

In an interview with BetaKit, Forecast co-founder René Pinnell explained that it’s likely a combination of both. To begin with, he pointed out that Forecast hit a user plateau because of its early dependence on foursquare for growth. “For the first six months of the app, we required new users to sign on with a foursquare account, and we were able to pretty well optimize our viral loops on that, and that’s where we experienced a lot of growth,” he said. “But foursquare’s platform is relatively small, there’s only 20 million users on it, so our growth started to flag when we’d naturally worked our way through most of the power users on foursquare.”

After turning to Facebook sign-ins to try to expand the potential user pool, Forecast still just wasn’t seeing the adoption it needed. That’s due in part to a drop in interest in check-ins in general; foursquare recently admitted that users were using it more for discovery than for check-ins, and foursquare’s next-closest competitor Gowalla had significantly less traction and was essentially lucky to find an acqui-hire exit via Facebook. Forecast made an attempt to encourage check-in behavior, too, with an update that introduced background check-ins based on ambient location services.

Ambient location features may not have helped Forecast, but Pinnell thinks that far from fizzle out, it’ll become a feature that’s as commonplace and accepted by users as push notifications or social network sharing options for apps in the relatively near future.

“I think ambient will be a part of all apps,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that’s not going to be a defining characteristic because most apps will incorporate some kind of context-specific functionality.” Google has definitely made a bet that that’s true, with its new Google Now cards which change content served on Android devices depending on location. There’s also Chameleon, a reskinning of Android for tablet devices from Ottawa-based Teknision that’s heavily dependent on providing an experience that shifts with location and contextual cues, which recently had plenty of success on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

As for whether Forecast’s specific focus on future check-ins might still be viable in another form, Pinnell thinks that targeting the future is still a big opportunity, albeit maybe not in the way his company approached it. “People are inherently interested about what’s happening in the future, so if you take a very broad perspective like that I think there’s definitely potential for a big company to be built around future-tense social networking,” he said, adding that Forecast’s major failing may have been taking too narrow a view and focusing just on where you were going in future, which he said likely isn’t a large enough value proposition for a large company.

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