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Foursquare's Dennis Crowley: Why I'm not bitter that 'Pokémon Go' has taken off

David Pogue
Tech Critic

This, as though you hadn’t noticed, is the week of “Pokémon Go” hysteria. Everyone and his sister is out in the sunshine, phone in hand, hunting for cartoony critters hiding in the real world. Nintendo stock is up 50%, the game is bringing its creators $2 million a day (in-game purchases) and pundits are saying that games have changed forever.

If you’re Dennis Crowley, who co-founded Foursquare, this all might sound familiar.

“They’ve got kids running around, exploring the world. If you remember, this is the stuff we were doing with Foursquare back in the day [2009]: How do we encourage people to go specifically into one business or restaurant versus another?”

The object of Foursquare, too, was to get people interacting with the physical world, and each other. (And it was based on an even earlier Crowley location-based game, Dodgeball, which he sold to Google in 2005.)

So, having been a pioneer in location-based games, is Crowley bitter to see “Pokémon Go” take the world by storm as though it’s a new idea?

No, he says. “There have been tons of AR [augmented reality] games; there’s been hundreds of GPS games — I’ve probably worked on five or six of ‘em. None of ‘em ever get this level of traction. It’s fun to see this one and say, ‘Whoa, somebody actually pulled it off, in a way that people actually care about!’”

Having lived through the hype wave a couple of times, though, he’s not certain how long this one will last. “It’s timed very very well — all the kids are off from school,” he says.

“But how long are people gonna be infatuated with it? Are people gonna be as hooked on it two weeks from now? Am I gonna be hooked on it two weeks from now? Because different games and apps come and go all the time. It’s only a select few that get to stick around for a long time. So I wanna see how this evolves.”

Incidentally, Foursquare, the app, is no longer for “checking in” to shops and restaurants (and, if you’re the most frequent visitor, becoming the “mayor” of that establishment); you use the company’s newer app, Swarm, for that.

Today, the Foursquare app is what Crowley calls “a better, smarter version of Yelp” — crowdsourced recommendations. “We’re trying to make it very proactive. We want Foursquare to be the thing that, as you’re walking down the street, will buzz you and say, ‘Hey Dennis, you gotta go inside this particular dessert store and try this particular ice cream, because we think you’ll love it.’ We’re still building that.”

Crowley’s own role has changed, too; he’s no longer the CEO of Foursquare, but instead the executive chairman. “I don’t have to manage the day-to-day parts of the organization,” he says. “I don’t manage anyone directly. But I get to work with teams that are doing lots of R&D, that are setting the strategic vision for the company, that get to think about: now that AR is a thing, do we want to play in this space? How can the technology that we’ve built power the next hundred companies that want to build something like Pokémon GO?”

Meanwhile, the company makes a lot of its money from licensing Foursquare’s location technology —which translates your GPS position into a plain-English place name like Grand Central Station — and that, he says, is just the beginning. “Our belief is that Foursquare technology is going to power a lot of what you’re seeing in the future — games and experiences that change depending on where you bring your phone.”

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.