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Foursquare's Swarm app will let you spend virtual coins on real deals

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Is your coffee shop gamified enough for you?

Foursquare and Swarm are both getting app updates today. And though it’s been a little more than two years since the check-in / restaurant discovery Foursquare app split itself into two, it still seems as though it’s necessary to remind people how these two interrelated apps work: Swarm is for check-ins and competing to be the mayor of your local haunt and Foursquare for finding stuff nearby.

Of the two, Swarm is getting the more important update. Version 4.7 is going to start offering deals from local businesses. To take advantage of them, you "spend" the virtual coins the app gives you when you check in to a business. They’re called "Swarm Perks" and the company says that there will be "tens of thousands" of them at launch. They come to Swarm via third-party companies, but it’s possible that someday in the future small businesses could sign up directly with Foursquare to set them up. Crowley says that there’s no money changing hands with these deals, it’s simply a way to drive usage.

Swarm is a different kind of app now than it was in the months after that split two years ago. Users were confused and unhappy with the unbundling. But J Crowley, Foursquare’s head of product, says those days are over. His main piece of evidence? The company just got its 10 billionth check-in. But more specifically, Crowley says that the company has paid more attention to Swarm this year, adding in game-like options like Trivia and the aforementioned coins. That was a pivot, moving away from trying to be a "social utility" that helped people meet up and instead focusing on competition and in-app sticker rewards.

In the past six months, he says, usage on Swarm has increased substantially. "Engagement and usage in the Swarm app is super deep," Crowley claims, "In fact it’s higher now than it’s ever been in the history of the entire company." That may be true, but it’s also true that an app that turns your check-ins into a game whose reward is coupons is significantly different than the life-logging location app many original Foursquare users loved so dearly.

So the new Swarm app may not be very soulful, but it is at least very focused. Even the other feature that’s being announced today feels of a piece with that new vibe: iMessage stickers. Yes, Swarm is making sure it’s early to the new iMessage App Store with a sticker pack, which is a default, unchanging set for now but will eventually be "dynamically updated" with stickers you can earn inside the Swarm app itself.

Foursquare, for its part, is getting a smaller update. It’s also jumping in on iOS 10’s new capabilities. Foursquare’s notifications are now full "rich" notifications. They’ll show images of what’s nearby and also let you save the location directly from the notification.

But the main update consists mainly of a clarified and simplified home screen. Instead of what Crowley calls an "aspirational" series of local places you should visit, it simply gives you quicker access to search and big buttons (called "chicklets") for common searches. At the top will be a "hero image" that will showcase various things, like local events.

Crowley calls the redesign "super search-forward," meaning that it’s designed to just help users find what they’re looking for right away. The older app, by showing local options for interesting Thai food instead of the ice cream you are actually looking for, didn’t match what users wanted to do. "When you open Foursquare, do you ever not know what you want?" Crowley asks. The answer, of course, is no. You just want to find a bar or a coffee shop or a restaurant and then find out if it’s any good.

The upshot of the new design is that, like Swarm, Foursquare is more focused now. And focus is good — but it’s also perilous. Because Foursquare’s new focus sounds a heck of a lot like Yelp.