Waze Raises $25M to Turn Your Smartphone into a Traffic-Avoidance Tool
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location-related hardware and services; it manufactured the GPS chips in half a billion handsets worldwide, to name just one example.
The new funds will allow the 40-employee startup to accelerate hiring both in Palo Alto and Tel Aviv. The company needs engineers to help it plan for the day—potentially in the near future, given the rate of smartphone adoption—when it will have millions more users. “There is a big infrastructure investment to support what we’re doing,” Bardin says. It’s one thing to juggle real-time GPS stream updates from the tens of thousands of people who may be using Waze at any given moment, he says. But once the app is installed on 10, 20, or 50 million phones, the company will face distributed-computing problems of a whole different scale. “There are some big technical steps that have to happen for things to happen in real time,” says Bardin.
From the beginning, Waze has built its road maps by collecting GPS data from app users. Co-founder and chief technology officer Ehud Shabtai was the founder of the Freemap project in Israel, which depended on user-generated maps and an open-source car navigation system called RoadMap. “The whole concept was to create this free, turn-by-turn app where users can all participate, keeping the data as fresh as possible,” says Bardin. “That can only happen when large amounts of people share a small amount of information”—namely, their current position and speed. If you’re crawling along Highway 101, the app assumes that you’re stuck in a traffic jam, and alerts the Wazers (the company calls them “Wazers”) coming up behind you.
Over time, Waze has added more social features to the app, including the ability to submit updates and map corrections manually and chat with other users. (The app only lets you enter text when your car isn’t moving.) It’s also added game features—for example, it populates its maps with “road goodies,” icons situated at specific locations that turn into points when you drive to that location. At Halloween, for example, pumpkin-shaped icons and ghosts yielded 2 points and 10 points, respectively, toward a user’s overall Waze score.
The road goodies aren’t all about fun: they’re also helping to train Waze users for the day when the platform will take on an advertising role. “We’ve been collecting an enormous amount of extremely valuable location data, and in the last couple of months we have been looking at [using that for] location-based advertising,” says Bardin. “Users are interested in location-based ads if they’re done in an engaging, non-intrusive way. And if we can let an advertiser spend, say, 75 cents, to get a user into a store where the average purchase is $45, that becomes very interesting for the advertiser.”
Waze has competition in the social mapping arena from OpenStreetMap.org, Skobbler, and other organizations—and obviously, it’s too early to write off traditional navigation players like Garmin and TomTom, as well as newer players like Google and Microsoft. But Waze’s $25 million in new financing could give it a big boost, in part because the company can now afford to go head-to-head with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Nokia, for the best engineers, Bardin says.