Like its competitor Foursquare, Gowalla launched at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2009. While the two social networks bear striking similarities--namely, inviting users to "check in" to local hotspots and reap so-called rewards--Gowalla is noticeably short on both fun and functionality compared to its more popular rival. Because it lacks real-world perks and the chance to read or write reviews of local places, at the moment Gowalla feels like a fad.
Gowalla has free apps available for a wide swath of platforms, including Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and webOS. (We tried the Android and iPhone versions.) Setting up an account with Gowalla was easy: we submitted our first and last name, e-mail address, and created a handle and password. Unlike Foursquare, which required us to go to its website, Gowalla let us sign up right from its app.
We like the cute, colorful interface, which features cartoonish icons next to different types of hotspots (say, a pig--as in piggy bank--next to a bank). These apps also do something Foursquare's do not by telling you how far away nearby spots are. Too bad the distances are provided in meters instead of feet, which would be more useful for American users.
You can choose to find friends on Facebook and Twitter, or you can skip this step during setup. We like that if you're already signed in to Twitter in the browser you're using, you can click on the service's tab in Gowalla to find friends without having to re-enter your password.
By default, anyone can see your Passport and the stamps you've accrued. While this seems harmless enough, we'd prefer Gowalla select the more private option by default. Even when you enable that privacy, your friends can still see your Passport, and anyone can see that you've added a location to the map. Moreover, by default Gowalla will send you promotional e-mails unless you opt out.
Like Foursquare, Gowalla let us check in to locations, as well as see what hotspots are nearby and where our friends were hanging out. Another similarity: there's a rewards system for both exploring new places and regularly visiting your favorites. Whereas Foursquare awards badges, points, and real-life freebies (say, free drinks) to people who explore or become the so-called mayor of their favorite haunts, Gowalla instead issues "Passport stamps." So, when we checked in to a location in New York City for the first time, we got a New York stamp in our Passport which, presumably, is meant to mimic the thrill of racking up international stamps in a real passport.
Throughout your virtual journeys, you'll receive "items" that you're supposedly "carrying." This isn't as fun as becoming mayor on Foursquare--and potentially reaping real-world benefits--since these items mean nothing in real life and aren't even necessarily relevant. For instance, we've never checked in to a coffee shop or cafe, but are still "carrying" an espresso machine.
If you want to check in to a location that doesn't exist in the app yet, adding it is more tedious than with Foursquare. That's because you must select a category for the place (at least you don't have to add the address). Adding a location also involves more tapping than with Foursquare's apps, and Gowalla invites you to preview your location on a map before you add it. Then you tap "Check in," only to confirm the check-in with another tap. Once you create a location, anyone can see that you created it.
Aside from the lack of real-life rewards, the biggest difference between Gowalla and Foursquare is that while Gowalla lets you share a location with friends, you can't read or write tips and reviews about it. There's also no list of trending places, as there is on Foursquare. One of the things we appreciate about Foursquare is that between trending lists and reader reviews, we had a sense of which unexplored spots were worth visiting.
If you insist on trying out a location-based service to "check in" to places you visit, we suggest you try Foursquare over Gowalla. The latter's effort is particularly lackluster, as checking in doesn't translate to any real-world benefits, and doesn't even include the opportunity to post reviews of places for others to read. While it has an attractive interface, this service is just taking up room on your phone, and time out of your day.