Google already knows what you’re trying to find on the Web. The near-ubiquity of its search engine has allowed the company to develop all kinds of products, from Google Now to Voice Search, with the sole purpose of helping you better navigate your digital world. Now the company is trying to do the same thing for the physical realm, having recently announced a newly-personalized Maps product and — according to a flurry of reports from Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and Globes — the acquisition of the Israel-based social mapping service, Waze.
Waze relies on user-generated data for most of its features. Most navigation apps rely on company-supplied information and can only offer a macro view of your journey; Waze turns you and every other user into a cartographer to show each and every bump in the road. Drivers — or, hopefully, their passengers — are able to warn others about speed traps and traffic jams or allow ‘em to compare gas prices or, if both parties have connected their Waze accounts to Facebook, see where others are in their journey. It is a navigation app made specifically for you, by you.
Maps currently dabbles with some user-generated features, but it isn’t nearly as you-centric as Waze. Not yet, anyway — Google is currently pushing to make Maps as user-specific as its other products, to become your personal cartographer instead of yet another satellite-generated navigation app. The service will soon begin offering preferential treatment to locations with which you are already familiar, or which are popular amongst your social networks or Web searches. Maps is currently made for everybody. Soon it will be made just for you.
Google’s newfound focus on location was highlighted at Google I/O, its annual developer conference. The company announced several new location-based features for Android, such as the ability to set up geo-fences, the ability to track your location without negatively affecting your smartphone’s battery life, and access to your smartphone’s sensors meant to help determine whether you’re walking, cycling, or driving. You will be telling Google about where you’re going and how you’re getting there without any effort on your part, and Google will use that information to create a personalized map on-the-fly.
Google isn’t the only company to focus so heavily on location. There’s Foursquare, which has become less of a check-in service and more of a local discovery engine; there’s Banjo, which promises to show you “what’s happening anywhere in the world right now;” and then there’s Highlight, which purports to offer a “fun way to learn more about people nearby.” Each of these companies relies on location in one way or another, and each believes that location-based data will become increasingly value as each service matures.
“The future — make no mistake about it — is location. That doesn’t mean that the future is Foursquare or which of your friends are nearby,” says Banjo founder and CEO Damien Patton. “Everything is going to be about where you’re at, what you want to do now, where are you going, what are your plans there? All about what’s going on in the world.”
The recent changes to Maps allows Google to gather that location-based data without requiring that you take your phone out of your pocket. Acquiring Waze could give the company access to some 40 million members who offer that data and so much more without hesitation. Your smartphone can determine whether you’re walking or driving — it can’t divine the price of gas or traffic conditions without you or someone near you purposely adding that information. Think of it as the cult of big data’s expansion from the digital world to the physical realm.
“There’s a whole new data layer on top of the world. We’re just getting started, and there’s a lot of work to do, but it’s going to change everything,” Highlight founder and CEO Paul Davison says. “It’s hard for us to understand what that feels like because it’s never been possible before. I really think it’s similar to when the Web came out.” And, just as it was when the Web was (relatively) young, Google is hoping to be there to gather all of that data and become your go-to source of information, whether you’re looking for flight information or that new restaurant your friends won’t stop tweeting about.
“Imagine that everything looked like a grey blob, and it wasn’t even weird to you, because it didn’t occur to you that an alternative was even possible,” Davison says. “And then suddenly the world turns to color. Well, I think that the transformation our world is about to undergo is going to be a similar change.”
That’s why Google, Foursquare, Banjo, Highlight, and perhaps dozens of others are so focused on your whereabouts. It’s why Google is upgrading Maps with a new, personalized experience instead of showing you the same map it shows millions of other people. And it’s why Google might be willing to spend more than $1 billion to get its hands on Waze and its data-happy users.
Google is the de facto portal to most of the Web’s information. Soon it might become one to the rest of the world, too.