What’s so special about Waze?

Published in Haaretz

Waze is hitting the news with its up and down $1 billion negotiations with high-tech giants like Facebook and Google. Its crowd-sourcing model is very social media friendly – and it’s also very Israeli.

Waze, the Israeli company that is creating a GPS revolution with a free satellite navigation smartphone app, hit the headlines on Wednesday. For some time the object of desire of three of the biggest hi-tech companies in the world, Waze apparently rejected offers earlier this year from Google for $300 million and from Apple for $500 million. Next Facebook wanted to friend Waze for $1 billion, although it was reported Wednesday that negotiations had broken down. Google is now reportedly trying to trump even Facebook’s enormous offer.

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Co-founded in 2008 by three Israelis, Ehud Shabtai, Amir Shinar and Uri Levine, and led by CEO Noam Bardin, Waze has now become an international phenomenon, with more than 30 million users in 45 countries – apart from the U.S. and Israel, you can use Waze from Argentina to Australia via a swathe of European countries – and 2½ million new users join every month.

In common with many other drivers in Israel, Waze has long since supplanted the pricey standalone GPS device I installed in my car a few years back. Waze operates in time rather than exclusively in space. Instead of launching you on a pre-programmed path from point A to point B, Waze routes – and reroutes – you in real time according to changing traffic conditions, always directing you to the fast-track of the moment. The program also updates your estimated time of arrival, giving you sufficient advance warning to invent excuses for running late. Should you take a wrong turn, the program recalibrates automatically, and if you don’t like the recommended route – if, for example, you want to avoid toll roads or – driving in Israel – the occupied territories, you can request alternatives.

So how does Waze work? Rather than monitoring every road in existence, Waze uses its un-enlisted army of field ops; all the drivers using Waze. Your smart-phone is constantly transmitting data back to Waze about your location, speed and progress, and the system processes the data coming in from all the Waze drivers to calculate route efficiency.

This crowd-sourcing model would theoretically align well with the social media culture of data-sharing. It’s also very Israeli. Waze links hi-tech entrepreneurship with the power of the collective, drawing both on brilliant algorithms and its community of users, if not to promote an ideological vision, then at least to provide superior service.

Occasionally the program supplements its automated data collection by soliciting specific answers from drivers. When your speed drops, a message appears to check if there is a road hazard, a speed trap, a slowdown or if traffic has come to a standstill, information it then shares with all its drivers. It takes one tap to answer – hopefully without causing an accident. Drivers can simply ignore the question, but apparently many respond.

Waze doesn’t ask for more details – whether you have pulled over to daven mincha before sunset or to let your toddler pee – because the program is designed to prevent you from texting while driving. If you try to enter a destination while the car is in motion, an “uh-oh” message appears, checking if it is the driver or a passenger making the request. The program can’t yet tell if you’re lying, but at least it reminds the multi-tasking driver that s/he’s being a fool.

While no program is perfect, my own experience has been extremely positive. So far, whenever we have ignored a Waze directive to get off a main road for a less familiar route, we have lived to regret it. But Waze’s effectiveness is dependent upon the number of users; more data coming in at any given moment means a more complete traffic picture. Without market penetration, Waze has trouble competing with plainer mapping systems. If there are no Waze users a quarter mile or ten or fifty miles ahead of you, the program loses its advantage.

Despite its incredible popularity – but according to a familiar script in the start-up world – Waze has struggled to figure out how to make money. The company has begun to charge businesses to be put in the system –Waze now can tell drivers where the nearest convenience store is, if there’s a shoe sale on nearby, or a driver can tell Waze she wants to eat in 40 minutes and Waze will estimate where you will be by then and what restaurants will be in the vicinity.

I can think of a few improvements. A voice command feature to talk back to Waze would alleviate the need to tap at all. In addition to the choice of a female or male voice and the choice of languages – my Waze is programmed to speak to me in English but I input the destination in Hebrew to avoid transliteration snafus – I would suggest personalized verbal command styles, according to individual preferences: “Get ready, get ready, coming soon… Idiot! I told you to turn left! Left!” for those who like to be hectored, or something like, “Missed our turn again, but no big deal… in 14 kilometers we can turn around,” for drivers who need the anxiety dialed down. Your Israeli or American army sergeant can bark out staccato commands – “Faster! You worthless piece of garbage!” And send you back to the beginning of your trip if you mess up. Or Bibi Netanyahu could tell you turn right at every opportunity (true, that will lead you in a circle.)

For now, the Waze app is free. And note the local angle to the breaking point in the buy-out negotiations: Facebook wanted to relocate R&D operations out of Israel to Silicon Valley and Waze founders insisted on maintaining at least some operations here in Israel. Whether this was – and will be in future negotiations – a patriotic gesture, an expression of personal preferences or simply a negotiating ploy, it’s shouting out for a ‘Like’.

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