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Those precocious, over-achieving iPhone users, always multitasking: Reading restaurant recommendations. Finding out where their friends are. Playing games. Foursquare and Gowalla let them do all three of those at once.
These hybrid apps combine the iPhone’s location services, friends lists, databases of user-generated hot spots, and user-achievement systems borrowed from the world of videogames. While you’re out and about, you check in to nearby locations, letting your friends know where you are, even via optional push notification. You can leave a tip (“Try the corned beef!”) and create new entertainment spots that others should visit. Since these apps are so social--both can update your Facebook and Twitter feeds when you check in--we signed up a few friends and took our iPhones out for a night on the town.
Foursquare’s schtick is that if you check in somewhere more times than anyone else, you’re crowned “mayor” of that location. A handful of businesses will even reward your top-level status. For example, a San Francisco bar will give you a free beer if you become its mayor. The catch: While the GPS is used to find nearby places, you don’t actually have to be at a location to check in there.
Foursquare lets you hide your location by going "off the grid."
Foursquare works in 21 cities and counting, and it supports iPhone/iPod touch, Android phones, a mobile site for other smartphones, and SMS–check-in support. You get “badges” for different accomplishments, such as 30 check-ins in one month or five locations in one night. User-submitted tips and to-dos give you ideas for nearby places to try, but the implementation could be improved. (How about letting us remove multiple tips from the list at once?)
The prettier of the two, iPhone-only Gowalla also verifies check-ins with the GPS, so if you’re not close enough to a place, it won’t let you check in. If your device is indoors and can’t get a good GPS signal, Gowalla can’t always find you. But the GPS also makes it easier to log new locations, since it doesn’t ask you to enter an address, which Foursquare does.
Gowalla's attractive stamps are fun to collect.
You collect a “stamp” icon (like a badge) for checking in somewhere once, but get nothing on a repeat visit, unlike Foursquare. Going on “trips” means visiting a string of nearby or related locations; you get a special pin if you hit them all. At press time you can’t create your own Gowalla trips, but the developers are working on that for an update. But you can use Gowalla anywhere you get a signal, so the app isn’t limited to specific metro areas. As you build your stamp collection, you get pins (checked in at 25 places, visited 10 coffee shops, etc), but there’s no clear benefit to collecting pins or the random items you pick up on your virtual journey.
Foursquare has more users, but Gowalla is a better-looking app and works in more places. But they're both free, and if you can talk your group of friends into sticking with one or the other, they can actually be useful for finding each other, instead of just collect-'em-all distractions.