Jun 182013

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I’ve been a long time fan of Google Maps as my SatNav of choice, ever since the Android app started it’s beta navigation option. If you don’t switch off your brain totally it rarely “steers” you wrong, and is great for local route finding for those difficult to find places, and for long journeys where advanced notice of traffic issues is a great help.

However I’d come across the recent headline grabbing Waze some weeks back, before the news of their Google sale hit. Waze, as you can guess is a smartphone (Android & iOS) based SatNav app. However it has a unique feature in that realtime traffic alerts and info are made available through a community based approach. This approach, sometimes referred to in the industry as crowd sourcing, gathers information proffered by it’s over 30 million users as they drive around.

I decided to try the application out as the approach was interesting and the screenshots I had seen demonstrated a slightly fresher GUI approach than Google on the face of it.

Waze has a cartoon like interface and offers the user “sweeties” as bonuses along their journeys as they demonstrate their contribution to the service and also miles travelled. This builds up your profile and provides a type of gaming approach, probably to pander to the Generation Z users. However what is disconcerting, is the appearance of a target sweet on the map at certain times and the compelling feeling to “dash” towards it. Not conducive to safe driving, but that might just be me 🙂

That being said the mapping is easy on the eyes and the status tabs at top and bottom provide clear information, probably a little less cluttered than on Google Maps.

Another winning point for Waze is its spoken junction descriptions. Google Maps takes the approach of actually reading out the whole sign that you would see on the roadside. For a busy junction this means being past the junction before it has detailed the various destinations and road numbers. Waze simplifies this into clearer directions detailing just what you need, and this is enhanced by the top tab, which shows a clear idea of which numbered exit and in the case of ring roads whether this will take you clockwise or anti-clockwise. However saying that, Waze seemed a little late announcing the junction exits, often stating 1 mile to junction when in fact I was at the two thirds mark, and this led to the final instruction of “take the exit” being a little too late. This could be caused by inaccuracies in my phone’s GPS, but Google maps doesn’t suffer from this. If you keep an eye on the directions and junction distances you shouldn’t have a problem.

Waze also adopts the feature used by Google Maps whereby it zooms into the detail when approaching junctions, so you can look to take the right lanes and see more clearly where the actual road exits are. This works well, especially if you are using a standard smartphone and not some humungous phablet. (My views on phablets coming soon!)

The real killer to whether a SatNav app is any use is of course the routes it finds and their usability. In the whole the main routes for long distance utilising motorways and A roads, is OK with waze, but it starts to let itself down on the more intricate routing when you get closer to your destination. I found that it took a very basic “get there the most direct route” approach, which then included the use of 20MPH zoned roads and humped roads. It also at one point wanted me to turn right at a no right turn filter. So some work needed on the data held on junction types and the minor road options in cities. Google is somewhat better at this, but to be fair it does sometimes send you up the back of beyond.

The traffic information is useful and can provide advance warning of issues to allow you to reroute. What does worry me a bit is the need for the driver to input the update into the app whilst obviously driving. Not the best idea, but somewhat risk reduced by the use of quick select icons for each type of issue. You are also offered the opportunity to provide feedback if an incident (or speed camera / trap) is not actually there as indicated. Again one of the powers of crowd sourcing can be an element of self moderation.

So of course Waze hit the news recently as they announced they had been successfully purchased by Google and would be allowed to continue their Israeli based development, which was one of their key requirements from the sale. They of course got $1.3b dollars for their four years of effort and each of the founders got turned into instant millionaires (in any denomination) earning them from $38m to $78m.

The bigger question is why would Google buy them considering the success they have with Google Maps. One speculation obviously is to keep such a good competitor app away from their main rivals. However I also believe there are some great benefits that Google may derive from the developed technology within Waze. The crowd sourced data itself could easily be utilised by Google Maps to provided auxiliary information for their traffic feeds. Time will show us what the real plans are, in the meantime Waze will continue to develop what is a very mature and useable app for the smartphone market.

For myself I will probably be sticking to Google Maps, and more because of it’s the devil I know, rather than Waze cannot compete. I may change my mind in time.

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