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AT&T Rolls Out Enterprise Location Services, Changing Everything for Foursquare

AT&T (ATT) is adding location-based services to its portfolio of mobile enterprise services. The idea is to allow corporations to track employees and technology assets -- a real mixed blessing for all interested parties, but more on that in a second. Here's the official line from AT&T's press release:
AT&T Location Information Services are designed to provide AT&T enterprise customers with a highly reliable, operationally managed service where network-based location information can be obtained for corporate assets, employee devices and consumer handsets. [Emphasis mine.]
AT&T has arguably been more aggressive about its mobile app strategy than any other carrier; it has a sheaf of mobile apps on all platforms, including its streaming TV service, U-verse, and it's just begun building three app incubators for indie developers in Texas, New Jersey and Tel Aviv. By sticking its own toe into location-based services (or LBS), AT&T is validating a group of offerings -- Foursquare, Facebook Places, Gowalla, Loopt, et al. -- that have heretofore been considered rather silly by "mainstream" standards. Media coverage (like this article in the New York Times) has typically treated the concept of the "check in" with respectful distance, acknowledging its popularity but also painting it as a blithely insane:
While Foursquare has been talked about in corporate boardrooms as the next big thing in social media - it has some 2.5 million users - it has also spawned a more trivial pursuit: a petty and vicious battle over virtual pieces of turf. Strangers are locked in bitter rivalries.
By entering the fray, AT&T has elevated LBS from "the next big thing in social media" to a position of real gravitas: enterprise software tool. The tacit difference between a social media trend and an enterprise tool is, of course, is the presumption of permanence. Where corporate principals might once have looked upon Foursquare as a bizarre (but potentially useful) publicity tool, they're now being encouraged to consider the long-term marginal utility of the check-in for business-to-business.

It's no wonder that business hasn't thought much of the check-in. Almost every major location service is based around a game concept: Foursquare has badges and mayorships; Loopt Pulse and Gowalla have a scavenger-hunt quality to them. Facebook Places isn't based around a game, unless, of course, you consider socializing and flirting a game.

AT&T's entry into the market suggests that LBS can create value outside of marketing and sales, which are these services' primary method of monetization. (Right now, LBS are primarily used as marketing tools by small businesses, bars and restaurants.) As it turns out, knowing where people and equipment are located can be vital, and enterprises will pay good money for location information on their assets.

AT&T says that it will provide LBS infrastructure for both enterprise customers and independent developers (who might have otherwise used an API like Foursquare's to provide location services inside their apps.) This gives businesses a more "serious," non-game way to access two vital data streams:

  • The location of the company's devices, employees and assets.
  • The ability for the company to provide location-aware services to its own customers.
This is one of the first indications that there are other niches in LBS besides "real-life" games -- and some of them might be major loci for disruption and innovation. Verizon Wireless (VZ) is also planning to provide its own LBS on its 4G LTE network, NavBuilder Inside, but hasn't announced an enterprise-specific service. Will Foursquare, Facebook or another LBS company launch their own business-oriented data service to catch a piece of the enterprise market? Is there a "Foursquare for Enterprises" waiting in the wings? Perhaps the startups will wait for AT&T to create the market before swooping in and trumpeting their own advantages: brand recognition, rapid development and guaranteed cross-platform performance.