Swarm is a new app from Foursquare out today that chisels off the check-in and proximity features of the main app and places them in a sparse, focus-driven new home. The app is nicely done, though it will be of most use to those in dense urban areas with lots of friends.

The underlying mechanics of Swarm are what's really interesting here — and more importantly what it says about the next generation of apps you'll be using on your smartphone.

There's a fundamental shift in the way that we use apps underway, and the symptoms are all over the map. From a deeper, more thoughtful approach to push notifications to the breaking apart of large, unwieldy apps into smaller more focused components.

The shift we're seeing will be the third strata of user interaction since the iPhone popularized the mobile app in a major way. The initial offerings for the iPhone and then Android devices adhered fairly closely to the 'information appliance' model. Using software, you transformed your phone into a mostly mono-purpose device just like it said on the tin. Now it's a phone. Now it's a calculator. Now it's a messaging tool.

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The second phase is the 'home screen' era, where every app fought hard to be your home base. The prevailing wisdom was that you had to cram everything your service offered into mobile, using a form of design-driven gavage to stuff your app until it was positively groaning with tabs and gutters and drawers.

Now, we're entering the age of apps as service layers. These are apps you have on your phone but only open when you know they explicitly have something to say to you. They aren't for 'idle browsing', they're purpose built and informed by contextual signals like hardware sensors, location, history of use and predictive computation.

These 'invisible apps' are less about the way they look or how many features they cram in and more about maximizing their usefulness to you without monopolizing your attention.

What happens when a social network knows exactly what posts you'll want to read and tells you when you can see them, and not before? What about a shopping app that ignores everything that you're unlikely to buy and taps you on the shoulder for only the most killer of deals? What about a location aware app that knows where you and all of your friends are at all times but is smart enough to know when you want people to know and when you don't?

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A confluence of factors have made these kinds of context-aware apps possible at this point in time. Increasing power efficiency in physical memory and device processors has led to better battery life. That, in turn, has allowed Apple to loosen restrictions on access to satellite location services, and has made it actually practical not to micro-manage on some Android devices. As iOS and Windows Phone and Android get more sophisticated and more contextually aware, they're providing the tools needed by developers to not only collate and act on these signals, but also to present them to a user with speed and care.

And services like Foursquare have reached a critical mass of data and users that have enabled it to develop systems for accurately telling whether you're walking by a restaurant or actually walking in the doors.

I spoke to Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley about Swarm a couple of weeks ago and he said they weren't quite ready to passively 'check people in' to exact locations, but hinted that the technology was on its way. And, even with a powerhouse set of competitors like Google, Facebook and Apple — Foursquare seems to be thinking the hardest about this stuff and has a massive amount of historical data that puts other databases to shame.

The recent switch of Instagram's location database to Facebook and away from Foursquare is an indicator of just how far ahead the company is when it comes to location. Try tagging a location to a photo these days and it's a total crapshoot — a far cry from the spot-on results delivered when Foursquare data was being tapped.

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