Facebook Becomes Location Backbone That Lets Apps Import Checkins From Each Other

Facebook has confirmed with me that its new location APIs let any third-party app import and display the checkins as well as location-tagged posts published to Facebook by other apps. This turns Facebook into a location backbone that can power serendipitous meetups and other geo-functionality no matter which apps you and your friends use.

Bliss — soon you won’t have to use every location app simultaneously, you’ll just pick your favorite.

Previously, location and friend tagged posts syndicated to Facebook from third-party apps got “dumbed down due to limitations of our API”, new Facebook product manager Josh Williams tells me. But APIs launched today will allow these posts to be tagged with Places or exact GPS coordinates instead of appearing as “static links” says Williams, the former founder of Gowalla, which Facebook recently acquired.

When Facebook first launched its own location service, Places, only a few apps like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Yelp had access to private APIs for publishing checkins to the news feed. A few months later it opened the read, write, and search APIs to all developers. However, when it moved away from checkins and toward location as a layer that could be applied to any post, the APIs didn’t upgrade to let apps tag posts and photos with locations, or read non-checkins that were tagged with location.

That meant when you took a photo with Path or Foursquare, tagged it with a location, and cross-published it to Facebook, the specific location wasn’t included. This prevented Facebook from pinning the photo to your Timeline map, making it appear prominently on the news feeds of friends in close proximity so they could meet up with you, or allowing other apps to use the data.

With the new APIs, Williams tells me “We wanted to figure out how to clean up [third-party app posts] so they won’t be treated as second-class citizens and can shine in their own glory.” Apps now approach parity with Facebook’s own publisher, “this announcement is a pretty big step in the right direction of bridging that gap. Still, there will be further improvements in the future.”

In addition to making users more likely to use cross-publishing apps like Path and Foursquare, the APIs open opportunities for passive location apps that don’t necessarily use checkins like Highlight, Banjo, and Glassmap. They won’t have to tag users to an established business or landmark, but can use GeoPoint specification to tag a user to an exact latitude and longitude. For example, these apps could prompt you to post your coordinates to Facebook, or do so automatically if you spent more than one hour in a location.

But here’s the coolest part that the other publications and I missed: The improved read API lets developers pull the coordinates of your friends based on their posts from Facebook or any other location app. [Update: While explicit “checkins” could in some cases be read before, now any post with location attached can be pulled] As long they’re cross-published to Facebook and you’re authorized to see them there, you could view Foursquare posts on Highlight, or Banjo posts on Glassmap. Status updates, photos, or any other non “checkin” post tagged with location can now be read.

That means soon you might be able to simply use the location app that suits you best, but see friends from across apps there and appear in theirs too. Even brand new apps with few users could populate themselves with checkins from Facebook and other established apps. This will push apps to differentiate and truly add value instead of just fighting to get the most users.

Facebook is about to become a hub for location data, enabling innovation while populating its own content feeds and ad targeting.

For more on how Facebook’s location service and APIs have evolved, check out this note published by Facebook titled “Under The Hood: Building The Location API”