Adios Garmin: Waze Is Smarter, Social, On Every Smartphone and FREE

I've seen the future of GPS, and guess what: it ain’t Garmin, Magellan or TomTom. In fact, it doesn’t cost a penny and it runs on virtually every smartphone platform. Said simply, download Waze now.


Back in 2008 – just as I picked-up my snappy new iPhone 3G – I wrote a blog post pondering whether the new GPS features would seriously threaten Garmin. My net analysis was the technology was there, but the software wasn’t. What I learned later was the barrier wasn’t coding at all – it’s the base maps that are only available for licensing from select vendors (like NAVTEQ who powers Garmin devices) at prohibitive prices. Now granted, Google is taking a good run at commoditizing mapping, but the applications thus far are mostly just digital mashups. But that’s where the sheer genius of Waze comes in – and it’s a global play the likes of which we’ve not seen in a long time.

Waze began life in Tel Aviv, Israel as a project called Freemap. The founders set out to define a new segment of GPS applications featuring real-time driving information and user-generated maps. Think social media and gaming meet GPS. And because they were mapping countries like Israel, solid base maps weren’t available. So how do you solve for this? It’s crowdsourcing, dummy! With more than 230,000 users in Israel alone, Waze now owns the most comprehensive mapping data for the country. They also have Waze loose in the rest of the world, including Italy where the community mapped virtually every major city in the country within 10 days! And clearly when you add this type of user-generated maps to the Google effort, defending your high-dollar mapping business gets harder and harder every day. Check out this video to see a user-created view of map gestation over a six month time period in Eastern Europe – crazy stuff!

waze_screenWaze’s inherent power in creating the maps is also what drives its up-to-the-second relevance – the community. By leveraging the latest in gaming and healthy competition trends in order to incent user-generated content, Waze has set the new standard for a GPS application in the digital age. The days of buying a separate unit for $200, and paying $80/year for new map data should now be relegated to your grandparents. Perhaps the greatest sales channel for Garmin will become Lillian Vernon or QVC? There’s not enough room here to delve into the hundreds of killer features in Waze, but you can see lots of them in the video below featuring Waze’s DiAnn Eisnor.

And let’s not overlook the way Waze has brought their product to-market. Leaders like Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook have the luxury to approach location-based technology as a slightly slower pace than the average three-person startup. But the reality is the landscape is already littered with location-based plays – with probably another 150% in the pipeline given the space is so hot. And each company will face the same question: How do I monetize quickly to drive faster development?

Standard thinking is sell the app for $4.99 in the various mobile marketplaces or include ads and hope someone wants to buy. Waze has gone about it all 1998-style: they took a Series A round in March 2008 from Blue Run Ventures, Magma Venture Partners and Vertex Venture Capital. And they’ve delivered a killer app that’s free to consumers and has no advertising – or said more simply, absolutely zero barriers to consumer adoption. Again, pure genius.

So what does the future look like for Waze? Certainly, they’ll always be getting better as the community becomes larger and more active. Imagine an Israel-like density in the US, and the sheer beast of an application that would create. I can tell you I’ve not found any roads in my semi-rural home zip code that aren’t base-level mapped, and the point-earning opportunities are plentiful! There’s also a back-end data play here as well given Waze is creating an entirely new flavor of navigable maps that are overlaid with massive UGC. The mind can run a bit wild on how that content might find itself into Augmented Reality apps or even in-car technologies. The bottom line is Waze may be the coolest application of crowdsourced information I’ve seen in very long time.

So munch on Wazers! My map can't wait to get smarter...

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