Waze Turns Turn-By-Turn Navigation And Mapmaking Into A Free Game

Screen shot 2009-09-24 at 1.55.39 PMTurn-by-turn navigation was one of the features that iPhone users were most looking forward to with the release of the iPhone 3.0 software. Unfortunately, as users quickly found out, turn-by-turn meant either significantly more expensive apps, or a monthly fee. Not only does Waze do it for free, but it offers an interesting gaming element to boot.

The reason Waze can be free while other turn-by-turn apps are expensive is that their maps are entirely user-generated. Waze simply lays down a foundation and users build out the roads just by using the app. And the company makes it in your interest to help them not only by offering turn-by-turn functionality, but also by turning the mapping of uncharted areas into a game or sorts. If you’re on a road that no Waze user has mapped before, you will see little dots and your car icon will turn into a Pac-Man-like character, to eat the dots and collect points for it.

HTC_TouchPro_NavI got a chance to see Waze in action at the DEMO conference in San Diego this week. The company was there to formally launch the service to a majority of smartphone users, adding Symbian and Windows Mobile support to its previously in-beta version of its iPhone and Android apps. The company took me for a ride through San Diego to show off how it works. Not only does the turn-by-turn functionality work well, but the the social element is very interesting. And did I mention that it’s free?

If you’re in an area with other Waze users, you will see them represented by icons (of their choosing) on your screen. You can also easily send reports of traffic incidents to Waze and to services like Twitter. Obviously, you probably don’t want to do that while you’re actually driving, but it’s a kind of cool little element of the mapping service that seems perfect if someone else is in the car with you. And these real-time mapping updates are really the key to all of this.

While turn-by-turn navigation is great, the real end-game for Waze is to have full map data for the entire U.S. and presumably, eventually, the rest of the world. The service initially launched in Israel, and it has already seen some 180,000 downloads there which has led to 91% of the map for that country being built. In fact, the data is so good that it is ready to be licensed out to other companies, I’m told. When the data for the U.S. get to the same level, that will be the plan as well.

And it’s a compelling business model because Waze basically has users building their maps for free, so they are able to then license that data at much better rates than the two big mapping companies, Navteq and Tele Atlas. And the company says that by relying on this user data, it is able to update its maps much faster. This means the service can offer things like real-time traffic information (you get pinged if there is bad traffic based on your driving pattern — stop and go, etc) and road construction. All of this information is passed to Waze anonymously.

You can find Waze for the iPhone here, for Android here, and for Windows Mobile, Symbian and other devices here.