Gowalla, a location-based social network that has competed head to head with startups like Foursquare and Loopt, is rolling out a radical overhaul that will do away with "check-ins" and aims to transform the application into a social travel guide for cities around the world.
Gowalla's reinvention suggests the company may be having difficulty making inroads against competitors like Foursquare, which boasts 10 million users to Gowalla's 2 million and which allows users to redeem rewards by checking into establishments and events. Gowalla is not alone in rethinking its location strategy: Facebook recently announced that it was phasing out its own check-in tool, Places, which reportedly had little success attracting users.
Gowalla CEO Josh Williams said the change in strategy stemmed from the industrywide move toward combining check-ins with discounts and rewards, an area he said he had little interest in pursuing.
"Our goal was never to go into the local deals space," Williams explained. "It's not a product we want to build moving forward."
"We wanted to go back to our passion, which is inspiring people to visit new places and visit the world through the eyes of someone they trust," he said. "I think the check-in industry is going to be doing interesting things around loyalty rewards and daily deals, but that's something entirely separate from what we're trying to solve."
That may not be all that turned Gowalla off social deals. A considerable number of more established players, including Foursquare, Groupon and Google, are all angling to partner with local businesses to deliver location-based coupons to mobile phones -- competition that could make it problematic for Gowalla to offer a meaningful number of rewards.
The new Gowalla, which a spokesperson said has been "retooled from the ground up," provides guides to cities, campuses, parks and other locales with content from Gowalla's userbase at large, an individual user’s friends and Gowalla's editorial partners, including Disney and National Geographic, whose content will appear with the launch of the new app. Users will be able to access these recommendations without registering for a Gowalla account. Williams noted that Gowalla might eventually charge for access to premium content.
"The question was: How do we create something more akin to a social Lonely Planet that gives people recommendations on where to explore, whether locally or abroad, but with a social aspect layered on top of that," said Williams, referencing the popular Lonely Planet series of travel guides.
Gowalla has not yet announced the launch date for the new app, which will be available for the iPhone and Android phones.
Some of the old features will be available to Gowalla users for a limited period of time following the relaunch. Check in while you can, as Williams noted the new app will not allow for check-ins.
Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Foursquare as having launched after Gowalla. The two companies both launched at SXSW in 2009.
SEE screenshots of the Gowalla app before and after: