As the SXSW (Interactive portion) geekfest wrapped up in Austin, Texas this past week, I don’t think it’s coincidental that the top five iPhone apps in the What’s Hot category were location-based social networking apps.

This year, location-based apps have been touted as the new Twitter and Foursquare and Gowalla have emerged as the clear leaders. On March 17, Mashable reported that Foursquare had added almost 100,000 users in the preceding 10 days surrounding SXSW and estimates of its userbase are in the one million range. Though I didn’t get to go to SXSW (a post-PowerBall-winning dream) I’ve been playing with location-based apps for some time (read about that here).

Though Foursquare and Gowalla easily rise to the top, it’s difficult to determine a winner; in fact, I can’t. I still keep them both on the home screen of my iPhone and check in twice wherever I go.

Gowalla easily takes the aesthetics prize for its interface; the competitive aspect of Foursquare is its strength, though I’m still waiting for some Memphis business to offer a discount or loyalty perk. Gowalla’s answer to the play aspect is objects you can pick up or leave at a location. I’m still trying to figure out why I would want to leave an avocado at my church, but it is pretty.

Both have discoverablity features: Gowalla allows the user to build trips out of a collection of spots in a particular area, while Foursquare users can leave tips at checkin points; try the fish tacos, it’s crowded at Noon or suggestions for nearby attractions. Both provide great ways to point out sights and places of interest in your city and to discover things off the beaten path when you’re traveling.

Just as Oprah and Ashton put Twitter on the map, Facebook may do the same for location-based services, as they will soon be integrated into the platform. With Twitter already in the location game, this technology may hit the mainstream in the not-too-distant future.

It took time for Twitter to become solidly established as a useful platform for business, nonprofit and personal use; users found their own applications for the tool as they began to use and gain familiarity with it. I believe the cycle will repeat itself with Foursquare and/or Gowalla.

For now, I use location-based services because I’m convinced that the best way to evaluate a potentially useful tool is from the inside. That means beta software, applications with strange-sounding names and no consonants and, inevitably, strange looks from your non-geek friends. Twitter was my new shiny toy in 2007 – 2008; Google gave us Wave in 2009 and Buzz earlier this year. What’s next?

Do you use location-based services? For fun, business or both?

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