Why Waze isn’t going to disrupt Google Maps.. just yet.

Waze is a social traffic and navigation app. What it does is help you plan your route on a delightful app interface based on information from its 7 million and counting legion of users over an accurate/updated map overlay. What that does NOT mean is that a teenager (no offense to teenagers but let’s just say a teenager like I was) somewhere with a smart phone  can play a prank on an unsuspecting you by “creating” traffic incidents. Instead, Waze collects traffic information from drivers in the background while the app is running as they drive. It also provides users with an intuitive UX to report incidents like speed traps and accidents.

I used Waze on an iPhone on the way back to San Francisco from LA. The first thing that struck me was a great user experience. The app design is crisp, the features are intuitive and the experience is engaging.

So how does Waze stack up against GMaps. Feature for feature, Waze can do the most important things GMaps can i.e. find an address, find directions to an address and route you using the best possible way (I haven’t thoroughly tested this but I believe this must an MVP for Waze so they will be quite reliable with these features). Where Waze and GMaps apparently diverge is in the source of traffic information – Waze sources traffic info from its users to make route predictions. Obviously, this means that Waze’s prediction is only as good as the roads being traveled upon and needs to be omnipresent across mapping devices – not everybody uses a smart phone to get directions. Anyway, in its current form with 7 million users, it definitely looks pretty compelling from a technology perspective. Finally, the reporting an incident feature for points and badges is just too freaking cool to go unnoticed (please don’t operate while driving).

What came as a surprise is that Google has had the crowd sourcing feature from way back in 2009. It was called “My Location” (I’m going to enjoy the look on the face of my friend from the Bay Area when he reads this). The only exception at the time was on the iPhone that had blocked location information but if Waze can do it, I’m sure Google can too. The question really is – will you trust Google just because the service will actually ask you if you want G to have access to your location. What’s even more surprising is that GPS devices have been using this technology for years to improve route accuracy. The incident reporting feature doesn’t exist on the Google app and is quite painful to use on my GPS – GPS manufacturers have bigger problems: mostly they haven’t woken up to realize that touch devices are supposed to be a lot friendlier to touch and let’s not talk about the UI.

The big difference between the incumbents and Waze is the social engagement and gamification  that allowed Waze to amass communities of drivers (like editors on Wikipedia, only they are guardians of the road). GPS manufacturers pay attention – you can use this as a differentiation to stay in the game for a little longer. Google’s ubiquity across devices and access to vast resources  puts it in a better position. I’m guessing this is not worth that much trouble to the company yet but it will be once it starts losing ground to an avenue that’s ripe for location-based advertising.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to how this plays out for Waze. They have a solid app that had me collecting points all the way from San Diego to San Francisco!