Facebook Launches Places With Support of Foursquare and Gowalla

Facebook tonight presented its long-awaited Facebook Places product to a large gathering of press at the company’s Palo Alto, Calif. office. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted the company had been working on the product for “a little bit more than a few months.” Though much of the functionality duplicates that offered by location startups Gowalla and Foursquare, representatives from both companies swallowed their pride and spoke at the event about the merits of using the new Facebook Places API.

The product has three goals, Zuckerberg said:

  • Helping people share where they are
  • Helping users see who’s around them
  • Helping users see what’s going on and discover new places

Places launches tonight on touch.facebook.com for “advanced mobile browsers” and on the company’s new iPhone app (s aapl). Dedicated BlackBerry (s rimm) and Android (s goog) applications don’t yet have the functionality.

“Places is not about broadcasting your location to the world; it’s about sharing where you are with your friends,” said Places product manager Michael Sharon.

Sharon showed off Places pages that display recent activity from friends and other people who have checked in. Check-ins show up as status messages with a little pin logo similar to those seen on Google Maps, and are published to friends’ walls if they are tagged. Places pull local business data through a business partnership with Localeze.

As for privacy, users are allowed to disable location tagging completely, and the default for Places check-ins is friends only. You can only tag your friends, and you’re notified as soon as you’re tagged. Developers will be able to use Places data through an API starting tomorrow.

Gowalla CTO Scott Raymond testified on stage about his company’s integration with Facebook, pitching it as an opportunity to expand and to get broader distribution for Gowalla’s pretty stamps. (Right now the relationship is only one way; Gowalla check-ins will be syndicated to Facebook, but Facebook check-ins won’t be syndicated to Gowalla.) Foursquare VP of Mobile and Partnerships Holger Luedorf talked up his company’s “pioneering” efforts in the space, and its value-add on top of Facebook Places with game mechanics and rewards from local merchants.

Yelp Director of Mobile Products Eric Singley said his company is building a way to pull in Facebook friends’ Places check-ins on top of Yelp reviews. Booyah CEO Keith Lee debuted a new location-based gaming iPhone app called InCrowd that he said the company had built in the last three weeks and would be available soon.

Facebook VP of Product Chris Cox cited sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s fear that technology will take us out of our community, because the only places people go are home and work. Cox said the promise of Places is that technology can pull us away from the television and to the bar. “Technology does not need to estrange us from one another,” he said. If that wasn’t sappy enough, Cox then talked up the idea of a story being pinned to a physical location for years to come, so when a kid goes to the beach 20 years from now he might be alerted that it was the location of his parents’ first kiss.

Places has no monetization features yet, and to start, check-ins are rolling out in the U.S. only. Business owners can claim places as their own, which makes them Facebook Pages.

Further reading: The Deal with Facebook Places and Privacy in Plain English

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.

Related GigaOM Pro Research (sub req’d): Location: The Epicenter of Mobile Innovation