The Israeli mobile GPS startup Waze has another mega-suitor in Silicon Valley, with Google reportedly joining the bidding war and topping the $1 billion offer rumored to be coming from Facebook earlier this month. What is it, really, about this mapping app that's drawing acquisition prices as high as — if not higher than — Instagram and Tumblr? And why haven't you heard more about it? Well, unlike those two high-profile startups, Waze isn't a social network, even though its community is more powerful, and it has much more than that to offer potential buyers — certainly more than filtered photos and GIFs. Here's the true gold inside Waze:
A Loyal, Addicted Following
Like any good startup waiting to be acquired, Waze, with over 40 million users, has just about as big a user base as Instagram had when Facebook scooped it up a year ago. (Since, Instagram's following has ballooned to 100 million.) But even with all those people using the service, it kind of feels like Waze came out of nowhere, doesn't it?
That might because the New York and San Francisco tech press uses it a lot less. Seriously: What Instagram was to brunch for the tech set, and what Tumblr was to their personal blogs of meaninglessness, what is Waze? At its best, Waze is a driver's mapping tool, especially popular in areas notable for their terrible drivers. Namely: Israel, a country known for the world's worst drivers. (During my first 30 minutes in the country earlier this month, my driver ran into a guy on his scooter.) Waze works more or less like any really good turn-by-turn mapping tool, but it has much better real-time traffic and construction data that it gets from all of those millions of users. Don't know the best way to navigate a confusing and often under construction city? Just Waze it, as so many Israelis do.
Privacy? What Privacy?
Waze did something very smart from the perspective of companies trying to make money off our data: It normalized giving away our privacy. In order to run — in order to be as useful as it is — the maps app needs users giving up as much of their driving and location data as possible. You know, in order to properly crowd-source road conditions. Users have two options: They can actively input useful information — like nearby gas stations, closed down roads, or car accidents — or they can passively drive using the app, letting it collect intel as you go. Both scenarios mean that Waze not only has a ton of useful data for companies in the advertising business, but that it has the potential to collect very specific, correct location based data from willing customers.
Maps Are All the Waze
With the whole Google vs. Apple Maps fiasco, we've seen the mapping wars heat up over the last six months or so. It's never been more clear how much people — drivers or no — truly value a good digital mapping service. So all the big tech companies find themselves vying for exactly that kind of valuable customer. Facebook wants the information for its all-knowing advertising scheme, as does Google. And Apple, which also found itself included in some Waze rumors, could certainly use some of the data to improve its own still-sucky mapping app.
Still, it remains quite likely that a deal won't happen at all. These reported swoop-ins have hit a roadblock, ironically enough, when it comes to location. Waze doesn't want to move its headquarters from Israel to Silicon Valley. It's also possible that the startup is flirting with an acquisition to ilk more money out of investors. But Waze deserves it — at least more than flights of fancy, because these inroads are real.