Waze, the company behind the free turn-by-turn navigation app of the same name, is upping its game with their latest release. It has long made referred to itself as a community mapping app, but there was no really way to be a part of a community within the app — until now. Today’s release is going to add Groups (about) to the Waze iPhone and Android apps (download).
Groups can be created, joined and exited on the fly. Group members can send messages to each other. They each have a special icon (like a tattoo) that allows you to pick out other members of your group on Waze’s Live Map (users can choose to be anonymous or show their user name to others in the group. Each group has a thermometer that indicates its popularity (defined by number of users and reports). When searching for Groups the popular and nearby ones are listed first. Groups can create their own Twitter and Facebook pages that will collect all group communication. Initially all Groups are public, but eventually people will be able to create private ones.
It sounds simple (and the feature should be), but Groups are potentially quite powerful – as VP Community Geographer Di-Ann Eisnor put it “you’re not alone on the road anymore, there are always people around you.”
I picture Groups being used to help daily commuters and carpoolers. Back when I worked at Microsoft in Redmond, I would bus over from Seattle in the morning and then get a ride back in the afternoon from a co-worker. As a result some lucky car owner could use the three-person carpool lane. We each saved time with this deal, but we had to rely on asynchronous mailing lists. I think that a realtime app that lets you know which cars are headed your way will be much easier (especially if Waze lets you have a hitchhiker icon if you need a ride).
I also picture it being great for events. If you’re going to a massive concert or sports game it’d be great to know who else is heading there with you. It’ll be really good for event promoters to know how many people are headed their way (could be a nice integration opportunity for Plancast on this front). For private parties I am sure that the event organizer would like to know when people are on their way (it’d be nice if people could easily create/join a Waze group from a Facebook event page).
It will also make an excellent free, fleet management tool. Cab companies and smaller delivery services can know where each other are at all times. If Waze adds an API you could potentially see third-party tools devoted to this scenario.
Waze is also adding personalized game mechanics. In a move that is very similar to its partner Foursquare, there are now point rewards for completing certain tasks. The more points the more advanced your Waze icon becomes. Newbies start off with a pacifier while experienced Wazers get a crown like royalty. These adornments do as this icon is visible to every other Waze user looking at the Live Map on the site or in the mobile app (depending on privacy setting).
They’ve also made a number of improvements to the UI in this release. The animation is smoother, they’ve improved the 3G map (using OpenGL) and the realtime alerts flow in and out in a less disruptive fashion. Finally they’ve added the Waze community created map theme Cartouche.
Waze has grown a lot in the past year. When I first wrote about them a year ago they had 15,000 iPhone downloads in the US. They are at 1.2 million users worldwide (over 7000 of them are also signed into Foursquare). Waze users create the app’s map, traffic and routing information. The company is competing against Tele Atlas, NAVTEQ and Google. However none of them are moving in this mobile community mapping direction. Tele Atlas allows you to send updates to their maps, but it’s a procedure done on your own. Google’s Mobile users report up mapping and traffic information implicitly, but with no sense of community. I think Waze’s Groups (and gaming) features will increase usage; they are now adding a social utility layer not provided by their competitors.