This morning Google announced its acquisition of Waze, a popular crowdsourced driving app, in a deal rumored to be worth $1.3 billion. This delivers a serious blow to the already floundering Apple Maps, and it put Google in an almost insurmountable lead in its new most important category.
While Google says it will leave Waze as a standalone app, it will also most assuredly integrate the company's wealth of data into its Maps product, adding real-time GPS information and traffic updates from its 47 million users (though other estimates put that number closer to 12 or 13 million active users) to beef up Google's already rich trove of geographic and location information.
It's a large investment from Google, but a sound and deliberate one. As search, Google's core product, has ceded more and more ground to social networks, Google has devoted enormous resources to becoming the undisputed mapping king, gobbling up all the geo-locational information it can muster. The company's data-collection effort has many fronts, from compiling census data, live traffic feeds, and scores of satellite images. It has logged over 5 million miles in its own fleet of camera-equipped cars, capturing not just street-level imagery but fresh metadata too.
This data may just end up being the most valuable asset Google has. Maps are poised to help the company play an integral role in the internet of the future — a future that seems not to care much about basic web search. The company's most forward-looking products, like Google Now and its self-driving car, all draw heavily from — and simultaneously can help collect — location data. As smartphones become increasingly sophisticated, and as wearable computing enters the market, reliance on intelligent, geo-aware personal assistants and living, breathing maps will only grow.
It's also easy to imagine how owning the de facto location database could help Google reinvent search with an emphasis on local, pushing out competitors like Facebook, which are forced to overlay their data on less complete mapping services such as Bing.
For Apple and Facebook, which were both rumored as potential buyers, acquiring Waze would have been a step toward leveling the playing field — a crucial set of data to help catch up with Google, which has been investing heavily in Maps for a decade. Instead, it's a punishing blow — especially for Apple, which, still reeling from last year's Apple Maps disaster, announced only small tweaks to its apps and promised vague improvements to its underlying data sets at WWDC yesterday — and a possible sign that the company knows the gap is too wide to close.