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Waze and Google Maps: A Quick Comparison

I've been a big Waze fan for years, relying on it to make my daily commute as quick as possible.  I try to never leave my hometown without checking Waze first to avoid getting stuck in traffic.

For those of you who don't know about Waze, they basically crowd-source traffic information, learning where traffic is slow by measuring how fast their users are moving.  This traffic information is then used to route people in ways that will truly be fastest.  (Apple has reportedly licensed Waze data for their upcoming maps app.)

Waze is used most heavily abroad, and is only recently building a following in the States.  (It was also just reviewed on the Forbes site.)  So on a recent trip to the States, I decided to compare Waze to the latest USA-based version of Google Maps for Android.

In a nutshell, I reached three conclusions.  (1) Google's use of text-to-speech in their turn-by-turn directions is very nice.   (2) Google's got Waze beat in terms of explaining what's coming next.  But (3) Waze's real-time traffic data is a tremendous time-saver and frustration-saver.  If I'm driving anywhere that might have traffic, I'll choose Waze hands-down.

I'll elaborate a bit on these three points, and then take a look at what the future might hold.

Text-to-speech:  Let's face it, what would you rather be told, "turn left in a half-mile" or "turn left on Main Street in a half-mile?"  It may seem unimportant, but when you're driving in an area with lots of turns, and you need to know which is the turn that the navigation system has in mind, hearing a street name (even mispronounced) is very useful.  One gold star to Google Maps.

Explaining what's coming:  Waze's turn-by-turn directions are fairly minimal.  Their app tells you a turn to make two or three times before you need to make it, a kilometer away, a half kilometer away, and immediately before you have to turn.  Occasionally, if the next step is very soon after the turn you're about to make, Waze will say "turn left, and then turn right."  But Google Maps takes this one step further, telling you after each turn what you'll need to do next:  "Turn right...  then in 2 miles turn left." Waze shows this information on the screen, but Google says it out loud.

Real-time traffic analysis:  This is really Waze's silver bullet, and it's a game-changer. Waze keeps track of how fast all of its users are moving, and figures out the areas where traffic is moving slowly, and then re-routes users to the roads that will be fastest in practice.

A week ago in New York City, I drove several times from midtown Manhattan to JFK Airport.  Google Maps and Waze both told me to take the midtown tunnel onto the Long Island Expressway, and then turn on the Van Wyck expressway to get to JFK. But a few minutes into the drive, Waze re-routed me, telling me to get off the highway and take side streets for a while. I was confused, and thought maybe that Waze wasn't that strong in the New York area, but then I saw the bumper-to-bumper traffic over the hill.  I got off just in time, and Waze guided me around the traffic straight to the airport.

Bottom line, Google Maps turn-by-turn directions are better for when there's no traffic or no alternative routes, but Waze's traffic avoidance is a game-changing feature that (for me) outweighs the rest.

What does the future hold?

I believe that Waze and other navigation systems can always improve their turn-by-turn directions.  They can add any number of comments to tell drivers what's coming, and ideally should offer options so that users can get the comments that they want.

Similarly, text-to-speech for speaking street names is also a technology that should be available to Waze or other navigation app makers. Google has good text-to-speech at their disposal, but that's not unique to them.

The biggest question is who can compete with Waze for real-time crowd-sourced traffic data.

A number of companies have carried out R&D in this area.  In 2011 Grizzly Analytics released a comprehensive report on location-based services currently in R&D, where we outlined research in real-time traffic analysis by Google, Nokia and RIM.  Google's approach was integrated with data from road sensors and other sources, and Nokia's research made the analysis and routing more efficient by focusing on commonly-used "trip lines." Similar R&D is undoubtedly underway at these and other companies that are involved in mobile location services.

Which of these companies will come out with real-time traffic analysis as effective as Waze's remains to be seen, but it certainly looks like the area is poised to develop soon. Meanwhile, I'm using Waze.

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