Check-in service Gowalla launches version 3.0 today, an entirely redesigned and rebuilt iteration of the location-based app that blurs the lines between its competitors Facebook Places, Foursquare, Twitter, and Tumblr.
The upgrade introduces a slew of new features. Improved back-end processing allows for faster check-ins and sharing. An overhauled user-interface streamlines access to friends and photos. And a new feature called Notes enables Gowalla users to leave short digital messages to friends at specific locations which can be revealed only upon them checking in there—say, a food recommendation at a restaurant.
But most importantly, version 3.0 introduces a new standard of interoperability for location-based apps. A new Universal Activity Feed shows check-ins from friends across other services such as Facebook Places, Foursquare and Tumblr, enabling users to earn cross-platform rewards (badges, deals, etc.) and receive push check-in notifications.
With the lines now especially blurred between the services, how will Gowalla—with its 600,000 users—distinguish itself from its competitors, 4.5 million-strong Foursquare and 500 million-strong Facebook?
"We might as well allow folks to have their cake and eat it too by providing a unified experience that takes the best of what these services have to offer and marries them together in a common place," Gowalla CEO Josh Williams tells Fast Company. "We're less concerned about the potential platform wars—we're in kind of a unique place where we can build an accordance between these services so we know when you check in here or there on Gowalla, that it's related to the appropriate place on Foursquare and Facebook Places."
Williams believes Gowalla's unique user experience and crowd-sourced database of locations will be a continued draw. He says that unlike Facebook and Foursquare, which licensed location data from a variety of different sources, Gowalla built tools to let its users create the location database themselves. "Our community was curated for us, Wikipedia-style," he explains, saying the service has far less licensing restrictions than its competitors.
In the next six to 12 months, Williams predicts consolidation between the services. Is he worried that Gowalla might be swallowed up by its competitors, larger social networks Foursquare and Facebook?
Williams understands that certain users might be more interested in becoming "mayor" on Foursquare or earning coupons using a simplified experience on Facebook. But he believes that in addition to its cross-platform capabilities, Gowalla's differentiating features, including curated trips—such as its partnership with Disney—will keep attracting users to its service over others.
"We see Gowalla as a next-gen socially curated guidebook, and that's something I don't really see a service like Facebook getting into," Williams explains. "There are strengths in services that go beyond check-ins and deals, that will help them rise to the top."