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Gowalla Nothing More than a Shiny object

Location Based Networks have become extremely popular in the last year and a half. I was an early adopter of Foursquare and continue to use it actively. It’s become somewhat mundane to go through the same routine. Check in, get points (that seem largely useless, become mayor if you’re lucky, earn some badges).

Foursquare seems to have stalled a bit on innovation, though there is some rumor of some new ideas that could get traction – MG Siegler of Techcrunch suggests a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style game where your city becomes your adventure quest.

However, that is not here yet and in the meantime, there are fresh challenges coming from Gowalla. I have not liked Gowalla though because they have developed their business in an iPhone-centric way – something which is, in my opinion, short-sighted and disenfranchises non-iPhone users. “You can always use the web interface,” is an insulting position to take with potential customers. It just says, “You’re not good enough for us.”

Gowalla has recently released apps for other platforms, though, so when they released their Blackberry app, I decided to run an experiment and give them the opportunity to win me over as a user. I decided that for a week, I would run Gowalla only and not Foursquare. Give it a fair shake, right?

Now, I realize that I’m pissing in my own back yard here. Gowalla is an Austin company and everyone loves Gowalla in Austin. I, however, am not known for playing nice just for the sake of playing nice. I’m sure the folks at Gowalla are great guys and I look forward to enjoying tasty adult beverages with them one day at some establishment that I check into with Foursquare.

Push Notifications Jump the Shark

My first 24 hours of Gowalla usage involved getting constant push notifications on my Blackberry. I realize the app is in beta but the only options for push notifications are to turn all notices off or turn them all on or select friends to get push notices from. The missing piece and the thing that differentiates Foursquare and makes them better, is push notifications inside a certain radius (I believe it’s 40 miles for Foursquare). So if I fly home to DC, I can start getting Gowalla notices from my friends there automatically.

I do not want to know that Beau Frusetta is at LA Fitness in Phoenix when I’m in Austin – at least not by push notification!

Continuing with this riff, why is Gowalla putting the impetus on their users to perform discovery? Why should I select which users I want top get notices from? How do I know if there are other people I want to get notices on and I just don’t realize it.

I realize I’m an exceptional case with nearly 900 Gowalla friends, but that presents a scaling question of discovery. If I have a list of 50 friends, I can manually curate the list I want notices from. When I have 900, that’s significantly harder. Why not provide a means of discovery? Maybe suggested users? Perhaps most active friends? Or something…

Location Gone Wrong

A second problem is the use of geolocation/GPS. On numerous occasions, I could search for a venue just to be placed several kilometers away from where I actually was. Perhaps I could move 5 feet away and get a better position, but Gowalla’s attempt to thwart people from gaming the system, at some distance they don’t allow a check in. That’s at least 2km away. This is very frustrating for the user and creates a socially awkward situation where, unlike Foursquare that takes 15-20 seconds to perform a check-in, Gowalla check-ins could take a minute or more just as a result of trying to get the service to know where you are.

But There’s Good Stuff…

I will say that I highly appreciate Gowalla’s “Trips” and “Events” functionality. Unlike Foursquare where you can only check in at places, Gowalla does allow for temporary events. USers have “lifehacked” Foursquare by creating venues that are actually events, but Gowalla has this functionality built-in. I like this.

Additionally, they have a Trips feature that allows users to map out places in a related away. Tour of downtown historical spots? There’s a trip for that. Bar crawl route in Tribeca? Got that covered. This is a very nice thing and probably along the lines of what Foursquare may do with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” functionality talked about earlier.

But these positive features were not enough for me to continue the experiment. The experiment is over only four days in. Back to Foursquare. Additionally, until they address the issues above, I can’t recommend anyone actually use the service. It effectively is relegated to a shiny object that looks nice but is effectively broken and unusable.

If you do intend on using Gowalla, I’d use it in parallel with Foursquare.

So let it be written, so let it be done. Ready, aim, fire. I’m ready to be flamed.

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Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

One thought on “Gowalla Nothing More than a Shiny object”

  1. I completely agree with you, and barely use gowalla. The GPS is always way off, and never lets me check in. Sometimes I restarted my iphone, but that stopped at the 2nd time. I usually use foursquare, and hope the new stuf makes it better.

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