Can Waze Save Apple Maps?
Category: Tablets, Smartphones
[UPDATE: There will be no Apple/Waze deal. TechCrunch, who originally reported the story, now reports that there will be no such deal. The column below still makes for interesting speculation.]
Numerous sources are reporting rumors that Apple is taking a long hard look at buying Waze, a crowd-sourced, GPS app developer for both iOS and Android. The idea has merit, but includes a couple of problems. Let's take a quick look and run through them.
As a quick reminder, I listed Waze as an honorable mention in the 2012 version of Byte's Top 5 GPS Apps For The iPhone. I've got a 2013 version currently cooking; but let's get to the pros and cons of an Apple acquisition of Waze.
- Crowd-sourced (read: user-supplied and validated) maps
The biggest problem Apple Maps has is that it's a 1.0 version app and service. While Google Maps has been on Apple devices for quite some time, and Apple basically knows what it wanted to do with the app, they haven't had to worry about rolling their own mapping solution...EVER. Apple Maps was, in all fairness, a decent shot at a new app for Apple, but it does have some very serious issues. Whether those issues are with the map data provided by TomTom and others, or via the way the Apple Maps makes use of the data, Apple is taking the lion's share of the blame for the sometimes glaring navigation and satellite image errors within the app.
Waze provides a way for users to validate the data. Users can report problems or provide updates to map data that can then be incorporated back into the service and the app. Users validate or update map data and the data gets assimilated and provided back to users in a "reasonable amount of time."
Incorporating this method of data validation into Apple Maps would provide Apple real time, corrected or updated map data from around the world. It would also give users the feeling that they are correcting the reported, egregious errors. This is a clear win-win for users as well as Apple. Both sides get what they want more accurate map data, ASAP.
Apple's main response to the problems with their service has been to point out that users can report problems with Apple Maps, and to assert that the service will improve as the company's vast user base provides this feedback. For one reason or another, Apple's users aren't getting the job done. Perhaps it's because reporting isn't convenient enough. In Waze, reporting is integral to the app.
- Local search
Waze's focus is on local map validation. More specifically, users validate the app's reports of roads and locations. As such, it can get you to there from here, but its real strength isn't navigation, but local search. It does local search VERY well. It has hundreds of thousands of users validating its map data on a daily basis. It knows exactly what's near you or how far away you are from where you want to be. This is an area of competency that Google feels confident it does well, too. If Apple wanted to challenge Google in the local search arena, an acquisition of Waze would go a long way to making that challenge credible.
In one step, Apple could go a long way to resolving two of its biggest map based criticisms by acquiring Waze. It wants to vindicate Tim Cook's public apology for Apple Maps and it wants to be a serious player in mobile search. Waze does this well and would likely be an acquisition that would increase its competitive edge with Google. From this perspective, it's a winning move from a number of different angles.
- Waze Interface needs work
The thing that I hate the most about Waze is that it comes off like a cartoon or game. Local search and navigation are not games; but it's hard not to look at Waze that way when "road munching", or simply running the roads with the app up, has the Waze "mascot" (which looks like a Kirby wannabe with wheels...) eating Pac Man-like dots as it passes over them. The munching sound I remember the app making didn't help it, either...
- Limited Support
Waze currently has the best support in the US, Italy, Spain and Israel. Waze may or may not be active or 100% supported in your local area. Support grows every day and the company provides frequent status and map updates.
- Android version? Not after an Apple acquisition
Waze cut its teeth in the Android side of the smartphone world. If Apple acquires the company, you can expect Android support to evaporate. While the app itself would likely still work, the benefits of user updated and validated maps, and local search would end.
This is likely going to be a serious negotiation point for both Waze and Apple as getting map validation from ALL users, regardless of platform, is likely the biggest point of value for Apple. Post-acquisition, ending Android support of Waze would likely reduce its value.
Acquiring Waze could be a very good thing for Apple. How Waze would fare post acquisition is unknown; but it's very likely the app would be chopped up and cannibalized for its back end data gathering and validation services. Android support would likely also need to be discussed, post acquisition.
I'm not entirely certain how the company would view all of this, but it's very possible that it wouldn't matter so much if Apple waved enough of their hoarded cash at them. What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the discussion below.
Based in Chicago, Chris is a senior IT consultant. He serves BYTE as a Contributing Editor. Follow Chris on Twitter at @chrisspera and email him at chris@BYTE.com.