Gowalla CEO: Sorry Mobile Web: Users Prefer Apps

In the ongoing debate over apps versus the web on smartphones, apps are clearly winning. There’s hope from companies like Opera and Google (s goog) that the web will surge ahead as HTML 5 becomes more widespread, and access to native phone hardware from the web become available to make web-based apps more powerful, but in a conversation the other night with Gowalla CEO Josh Williams, he expressed doubts.

Williams, whose location check-in app has 400,000 users, said that Austin, Texas-based Gowalla had built both an iPhone (s aapl) app and a “beautiful mobile site” for other smartphone platforms, but people overwhelmingly used the app, which disappointed him. “People love apps, but it drives a stake in the heart of the build-once-deploy-everywhere model, and makes the market really fragmented,” said Williams. It’s possible that consumers, now trained to hit up an app marketplace rather than a web site, may never go back, but it’s also an indication of the wholesale shift in how people use the Internet and the nature of the Internet.

Many people perceive the web as source for content rather than a source of services. An app puts the illusion of packaging around a web-delivered service so people feel like they are buying functionality, not merely visiting a site to perform a function or access content. This subtle perception not only explains why apps are popular, but it might also be a clue as to why folks can charge for apps while still unable to monetize their web-based services.

But Williams can’t spend much time regretting the fragmented mobile market. As the CEO of a check-in service with a fifth of the users that Foursquare has, Williams needs to take Gowalla in a new direction or figure out how to jump ahead of its peers in the evolving social location market. Unfortunately, Williams was intentionally vague about his plans for upcoming Gowalla features that should launch in a month or so, and unintentionally vague on the future of location in social networks.

Williams dropped the world “places” (it’s the It word if you’re a location startup, kind of like “pivot” is if you’re an angel-backed startup in Silicon Valley or NYC) into the conversation several times, when asked about Gowalla’s next steps. He also touted the increase in Gowalla users who have visted the web site to share memories, pictures or commentary about places where they’ve checked in; now 45 percent of users visit the site as a follow-up, as opposed to 20 percent six weeks ago. So it’s likely Gowalla will launch some kind of places product. However, Williams couldn’t articulate why someone would go to Gowalla for this if Facebook offered it or Yelp broadened its reach.

He explained that Gowalla’s databases of places is an advantage because it was created by its users and isn’t licensed from another player. Apple and Google apparently think that’s important enough to start gather their own place data, but Williams couldn’t clearly state the value Gowalla hopes to extract from that. Maybe when Gowalla announces new features everything will become clear.

Related GigaOM Pro research (sub req’d): Location the Epicenter of Mobile Innovation