What Waze means for Google

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 1:10am

Google's recent purchase of navigation and mapping app Waze for US$1 billion will be another boon to local tycoon Li Ka-shing.

He already cashed in this year when Yahoo! paid US$30 million for Summly - a news app created by young British-Australian programmer Nick D'Aloisio - which Li's Horizon Ventures had invested in.

Li's fund, which also invested in Facebook and music streaming service Spotify, was one of three parties that financed Waze to the tune of US$30 million in 2011.

His investment generated a buzz that the Israeli start-up hopes will help it break into the mainland market, where there are no significant mapping applications.

Waze runs on Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating system and is similar to other mapping apps, also acting as a GPS for drivers.

Where it differs is that it leverages users' data to help build an accurate, real-time picture of traffic conditions. Users help by notifying other motorists of potential traffic slowdowns, roadworks, accidents, potential hazards and, of course, the police.

Waze says it has more than 50 million users worldwide. The app is fully functional in Hong Kong, where over the past few years local users have been adding input to sort out glitches in the navigation function.

Google, which announced the Waze purchase last week, hopes it will help it recover ground lost after its mapping tool was surpassed by Facebook as the most popular US smartphone application.

The purchase also underscores the urgency of wooing users who increasingly access services, such as driving directions and social networking, on smartphones.

Just how crucial maps are to smartphone users became clear last year during a dust-up between Apple and Google.

Apple was widely lambasted after ditching Google mapping data for its home-grown Apple Maps, which was marred by unreliable landmark searches, routes that got users lost and a lack of public-transit directions. The problem was particularly acute outside the US.

Users in Hong Kong found that many local landmarks were not listed. The Bank of China Building, Pacific Place and Taikoo Shing were among searches that failed to get results when Apple Maps was launched last September.

Apple CEO Tim Cook later apologised for the misstep, while Google quickly built its own iPhone maps app that soon became a top download.

While Google will keep Waze independent, it will also use data from Waze to improve its own services, an official from the Israeli company said.

"We're excited about the prospect of enhancing Google Maps with some of the traffic update features provided by Waze and enhancing Waze with Google's search capabilities," Google said on its blog.

"The Waze community and its dedicated team have created a great source of timely road corrections and updates."

Google has taken other steps to maintain its mapping lead. The company last month gave a preview of the biggest overhaul of the map service since its inception, providing more context and recommendations, whether for a particular restaurant or museum.

While the revamp is for desktops, the updates are likely to be rolled out to mobile users too.

Apple is also striving to improve its mapping services, and plans to add its mapping app to desktop computers, so users can send directions to their iPhones.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg