Gowalla by Austin, TX based Alamofire and Foursquare are two new location based mobile apps that were release this year and both have been getting an lot of attention. Location based apps and games are gaining quite a bit of popularity as GPS becomes almost ubiquitous in our handheld devices. The raise of Geocaching is a great example of how a techy hobby has gone mainstream with the increase of GPS aware devices; just do a search for geocaches near you and you’ll know what I mean.
In concept Gowalla and Foursquare are rather similar. You create an account, get connected with friends, and then you start “checking-in” to various establishments as you go about your daily or nightly travels. I’ve decided to write up what’s turned into a rather lengthy comparison of the two and which one I prefer. So without further ado, here goes:
In Foursquare each check-in nets you a certain number of points based on different criteria like whether it’s your first time there, if you’ve checking in other places that day, or if you’re the “mayor” of the establishment. Being the mayor simply means you’ve checked in the most times at that particular venue. Tech savvy business owners can create deals for the mayor which will be called out for you if you’re nearby. This particular feature, though I know it’s tied to future monetization of the app, seems extremely limited and mostly useless to me. To offer deals to only one individual, the mayor, seems pretty pointless. There’s a local leader board that shows people with the most points for the current week. An there are badges you can earn for achieving certain milestones, like checking-in to the same venue 3 times in the same week will get you the Local badge.
With Gowalla you’re still checking-in to locations but instead of getting a running point total like a traditional game, you get a “pin” for each new place that you visit. There are still achievements to be earned (called “pins”) like visiting 10 coffee shops or becoming a founder of 25 locations. But what’s a bit more interesting are the location specific pins that you can get for famous landmarks or locations. Alamofire call themselves a digital collectibles company and the design on their feature pins are pretty cool. Unfortunately there aren’t in my regular stomping grounds yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. There’s a fun little side game in Gowalla where you’re occasionally gifted a unique digital item that you can leave at a venue for others to pickup, or you can trade one of your items for one that’s already there. With the app you can see the ownership history for a particular item so you’re able to see how long that particular thing has been around and how far it’s traveled. It’s the digital version of Geocaching’s Travel Bugs, and it adds another level of amusement when you’re out an about.
There are two fundamental differences between the two apps. The first has to do with basic usage. Foursquare is currently locked to specific cities that are made available by the developers. You are always tied to a particular city when you’re in the app. You can gain badges independently in each city and you can’t check into venues in one city while you’re in another. With Gowalla there are no such limitations. The whole world is your playground at all times. Pins, items and all your statistics go with you no matter where you are. Friends can see you’re activity even if they’re across the country. The same is not true of foursquare. My friends in San Fran don’t get to see the things I’m doing and likewise I don’t get to see them.
The second difference has to do with when you’re allowed to check in. With Gowalla you can only check into a location if your GPS coordinates are withing a certain range of a venue. This means that if you forget to check-in, or if your GPS isn’t resolving correctly, or if the venue creator hasn’t been diligent about creating an accurate marker you won’t be able to check into the venue. With Foursquare that’s not the case. You can always check into any venue in the city. Gowalla made a recent update to their app to make it easier to modify venue locations after they’ve been created and they’ve also made changes to make it easier to check-in when you’re inside or your GPS signal is weak.
Personally, when I compare the two I tend to lean toward Gowalla. Being limited to just the one city in Foursquare is frustrating considering that I travel between two cities for work and home life. Venue naming is extremely clunky in foursquare as well. With Gowalla a venue is tied to specific set of GPS coordinates. That means you can have two venues with the same name in the same general area (rather common with fast food joints) and there’s no confusion. With Foursquare, those two venues need to have unique names in order to tell them apart. Not a big deal when you’re talking about a bar or some other unique venue, but it becomes a problem when you’re dealing with national chains and other cookie cutter establishments. The community has settled on a few naming conventions, but there’s nothing that stops someone from breaking from convention which leads a rather large number of duplicate venues or other naming snafus.
The other thing that really puts Gowalla out in front for me is venue classification and the addition of Top 10 lists for each venue with their latest application update. Gowalla makes the jump from a fun location based, social networking game to a relatively useful “venue finder.” Where foursquare just has a single list of nearby venues without any context or categorization, Gowalla has large number of categories that each venue can be applied to. If I’m in a new area I can open up Gowalla, look for nearby spots and sort them by restaurant and type of food, bar, entertainment type and then from there I can see if a lot of people have checked-in. If they’ve said good things or if there happens to be a featured location nearby. There are, of course, other apps that perform that task specifically (Yelp comes to mind) but I like that Gowalla isn’t just making a game and that they’re really trying to create a useful community experience.
A the moment Foursquare has a larger user base, and that may remain true, but only time will tell. Gowalla started out as an iPhone only app (a mobile site for Android phones is available m.gowalla.com) and new apps are on the way for other devices, while foursquare has been available as a mobile web app since it’s start. Gowalla is making large strides in gaining new users, though. They just got put on the “New and Noteworthy” list in the iTunes App Store which has subsequently pushed them into the top 10 for free social networking apps (above foursquare for the first time). They’ve already had one major update in the last couple of months and I’m hoping that they’ve got even more good stuff coming down the pipeline. The developers seem to really be excited by what they’re working on and it really shows in the attention they’ve been paying to their community. I’m excited to see where both apps go in 2010 but I have to say that, for me, Gowalla appears to really be pushing into new territory and I think they’ll come up with some great stuff in the coming year.